The reality of apartheid can be understood only if one understands its impact upon the people who must live under it. Before the South African government barred television crews from the black townships a few months ago, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and the `MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' cameras spent a month in Soweto, KwaThema and the Cape Town area, visiting and interviewing blacks, whites, and Coloreds in an attempt to find out what life is really like for the people who live under the apartheid system.
What emerged originally was a series of incisive news segments which appeared on the nightly show for which Ms. Hunter-Gault is a national correspondent. Now, the reports have been grouped together as a special which, in the light of the current news blackout, turns out to be one of TV's most vivid, understandable interpretations of what is happening to people in South Africa today.
Apartheid's Children (PBS, Wednesday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) talks to real people. Sister Agatha, for instance, who says: ``We are nothing and so we act as nothing. . . . There's nothing we can do to stop the young people from being violent.''
Or Father Peter who says: ``The change has really started. . . . The country is ungovernable.''
Hunter-Gault, who has turned into a fine, probing and yet compassionate reporter, follows a black communications consultant from his home in Soweto to his advertising-agency office in Johannesburg, where he feels as though he's playing a role, before he returns to his black ghetto, pass in hand. The bitterness lies close to the surface, but it is a hurt bitterness.
Hunter-Gault chats with supposedly enlightened Afrikaners in Paarl, a wine-growing community near Cape Town. The head of the family, whose ancestors arrived in Africa in the 17th century, agrees that changes must be made. But, he argues, you must look at the track record of Africans to realize why he is so reluctant to switch to a ``one-man-one-vote'' system.
``Minority groups have no chance to survive,'' he predicts. Hunter-Gault listens with professional empathy and one feels that whites are getting as fair a hearing as the blacks.
Perhaps the most optimistic moments in this uniquely revealing documentary come in the segment which deals with a black trade union leader, the head of the National Union of Miners and a pivotal leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. He is a man determined to fight not only for his own rights and the rights of his union brothers, but for the rights of all South Africans -- black, Colored, and white.
He is symbolic of a new breed looking toward the future which may be arising in South Africa: the post-apartheid man.
As white South Africans live in what Hunter-Gault calls ``uneasy comfort,'' she was unnerved to discover that wherever she went -- in white or black communities -- people wanted to know what was happening elsewhere. State censorship and incomplete news coverage have left most people in ignorance of the overall situation. She was appalled to find how little the whites know of the realities of life in the black townships.
Solutions will not be simple, Hunter-Gault agrees with that universal assessment. But, she insists, ``Better communications would certainly go a long way toward lowering the temperature.''
``Apartheid's People'' is a dual accomplishment: It raises awareness while it lowers the temperature. Instead of shocking revelations in the area of politics and philosophy, it offers solid, down-to-earth information about the way some people are forced to live because other people choose to make them live that way.