Books on South Africa: one message, two perspectives

Waiting: The Whites of South Africa, by Vincent Crapanzano. New York: Random House. 358 pp. $19.95. Freedom Rising, by James North. New York: Macmillan. 352 pp. Illustrated. $19.95. This spring brings two nonfiction books by Americans who have recently spent time in South Africa. Anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, a professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has chosen to distill his studies into ``Waiting: The Whites of South Africa.'' His book presents and analyzes the attitudes of selected residents -- both English- and Afrikaans-speaking -- of a composite village outside Cape Town called Wyndal (literally, Wine Valley in Afrikaans).

Journalist James North, who occasionally reported for The New Republic during his years in South Africa, has woven his interviews and meetings with South Africans of all races and varying political stripes into ``Freedom Rising,'' billed as ``Life Under Apartheid Through the Eyes of An American on a Four-Year Clandestine Journey Through Southern Africa.''

There are obvious differences between these two works, mostly involving the methodology employed by each author, both of whom have remained true to the tenets of their disciplines. But the two books blend together to present a rather similar view of the troubled land each is trying to illuminate. Both expose a country torn by prejudices and dissensions, and neither author can really hold out much hope for a satisfactorily peaceful change.

And yet, neither book is totally devoid of hope. Mr. North genuinely, if more passionately than rationally, believes that United States pressure, such as disinvestment, can effect meaningful change, while Professor Crapanzano, as befits a seasoned anthropologist, sees faint harbingers of change in the individual attitudes expressed by his subjects.

North, who writes under a pseudonym and makes perhaps too much a show of the (arguably) clandestine nature of his sojourn in southern Africa, has afforded some of his interviewees anonymity while calling others, such as author Nadine Gordimer, by their real names. He is sensitive to the various groups within South African society and fundamentally sound in his political and social judgments. On occasion, however, he is prone to be a bit naive and ingenuous just where a touch more hard-headedness would improve his book.

Crapanzano is clearly a skilled social anthropologist and his typical-atypical Wyndal is a remarkably illuminating microcosm of white South African society, even if he does seem to dwell too long on issues of purely local consequence, such as a bitter schism within the town's Anglican community between charismatic and noncharismatic subgroups. But one feels that such excessive attention is solely the result of Crapanzano's deep commitment to presenting the truth as he finds it, so as to give us a portrait whose truth is based upon what the author actually encountered rather than what he expected to see.

In sum, those who continue to be perplexed by the complexities of the South African situation will find in both these books considerable illumination if, alas, no easy answers.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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