White South Africans catch rare glimpse of black upheaval. Anguished response to photos shows whites' isolation from turmoil

They are like screams on note paper -- words of surprise and pain as white South Africans glimpse the race war that has wracked their nation for 20 months. The violence has rarely spilled into white areas. Rarer yet are the times when South African newspapers have published pictures of it. State-controlled television, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), has shown none of the terrifying footage that has bombarded viewers overseas.

Yet, for the past three weeks, an exhibit of 39 photographs -- called ``Divided Landscape'' -- has frozen scenes of black upheaval and white police power on the walls of a Johannesburg gallery. The visitors' book freezes the public's response to the pictures taken by Gideon Mendel, a white South African, who works for the French News Agency here.

``Real, shocking, and necessary,'' says one visitor's entry.

``At least someone had the courage to show what is really happening,'' says another.

And another: ``Most inspiring. Pity how little the white man knows South Africa -- his so-called home.''

Most whites here have yet to visit nearby black townships such as Soweto or Alexandra. In one recently overheard conversation after unrest in Alexandra, a woman real-estate agent, having never seen a black township, lamented to a friend: ``I suppose, that Alexandra is bigger than Soweto.'' Soweto, in fact, is much larger.

The gulf of understanding between white and black seems at least as great. Few whites have witnessed the looting, the burning cars, the black funerals, the buckshot wounds and tear-gas victims, or the nightstick-wielding police captured by Mr. Mendel's camera.

``It is about time,'' scrawled one visitor, ``that we saw this side of the picture. The SABC has shown the other ad nauseam.''

``Atrocious deeds done by the SADF [soldiers] and the police. Good work by Mendel,'' reads another comment.

``I truly pray,'' recorded a visitor named Anthony, ``that we as whites would stop [merely] looking and really see what these pictures say.''

A visitor from Durban added: ``It is difficult to see these as photos -- more like glimpses into a reality we don't want to see . . . . Thanks for pulling aside the curtains.''

Not everyone welcomed the photos.

One visitor criticized the exhibit as overly ``political.''

``Totally one-sided,'' complained another entry. ``It shows those animals in the streets in as good a light as possible, as `sufferers' -- they suffer from their own savagery -- and the police in as bad a light as possible. Thankfully, not all in this country are bleeding-heart, Communist-indoctrinated stooges.''

A Ugandan visitor remarked that a few pictures of ``Ugandan genocide may put things into perspective.''

In between, remarks of a self-described ``pro-South African,'' Pat Carter: ``A good cross-section of what is happening in our great country . . . . The sooner white and black get together and create a better South Africa, the better. I sympathize with both the government and the black extremists. However, the past is past, and for God's sake let's go forward together.''

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