A lament for roads not taken. Musings on South Africa

White Tribe Dreaming: Apartheid's Bitter Roots as Witnessed by Eight Generations of an Afrikaner Family, by Marq de Villiers. New York: Viking Penguin. 420 pp. Illustrated. $21.95. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, by J.M. Coetzee. New Haven: Yale University Press. 193 pp. $19.95.

CONFRONTING what appears to be an impasse - or a change so drastic as to summon up visions of apocalypse - it is no wonder that thoughtful Afrikaners, hard pressed to imagine a just and viable future for South Africans of all races, turn their eyes inward and toward the past, asking difficult questions about what happened and why - and perhaps more important, what did not happen and why not.

Marq de Villiers is an eighth-generation Afrikaner, a journalist who left his native country as apartheid solidified in the 1960s and legal democratic opposition, always limited, grew less and less possible. His father, Ren'e de Villiers, also a liberal journalist, served as a Progressive member of South Africa's Parliament in the 1970s. His great-uncle, Leo Marquard, helped found the now-defunct multiracial Liberal Party along with his wife, Nell, who was a founding member of the still active women's protest group, Black Sash. Marq de Villiers currently lives in Toronto, still attached to his South African homeland, still trying to come to terms with its history and politics: present, past, and future.

``White Tribe Dreaming'' is his attempt to understand - or at least to ponder - his own story, his family's history, Afrikaner history, and ultimately, the history and fate of South Africa. It is as if, by retracing the road from the blocked present back through the labyrinth of missed opportunities, he feels he might come to understand the decisionmaking processes that produced a trail of wrong turnings.

De Villiers's ancestors, French Huguenots, arrived at the Cape in 1688, refugees from religious persecution. Drawing on family diaries, letters, and reminiscences, de Villiers invests South African history with a strong sense of immediacy and personal involvement. His style is informal - chatty, in fact - and at times it seems the informality extends to his research, as when he states that apartheid's leading architect, Hendrik Verwoerd, ``received his theological training [in the Netherlands] and in the seminaries of the Cape,'' neglecting to mention Verwoerd's social science studies in pre-Hitler Germany and his notorious past as a professor of applied psychology.

Surveying the history of a ``white tribe'' (originally French and Dutch, but soon Africanized - ``Afrikanerized''), de Villiers tries to understand how their ``search for Beulah turned to bitterness'' and ``longing for relief ... into the politics of privilege.'' He points to a number of what he thinks might have been crucial junctures, calling attention to seeds of generosity that might have blossomed into better policies and possible roads urged by people of goodwill that were, alas, not taken.

There is the story of the Griquas, people of mixed European and African ancestry, whose position early in the 19th century de Villiers sees as roughly parallel to that of the Boers. Might they not have gained the kind of independence and status their white ``cousins'' attained in the tiny Boer ``republics''? he wonders. This did not happen, and de Villiers is not quite sure why not.

A century later, Afrikanerdom spurned the vague but generous liberalism of J.H. Hofmeyr, who tried to dissuade Parliament from stripping voting rights from Cape coloreds. Instead, the Afrikaners preferred to follow increasingly harsh brands of nationalism, which proceeded to take away any civil rights enjoyed by nonwhites.

De Villiers directs attention away from the saddening historical mainstream of South African history to focus on exemplary individuals whose attitudes might have signaled a way out of the impasse. He writes of the diplomatic wisdom of the 19th-century Sotho king Moshoeshoe of what is now the country of Lesotho (though it is hard to see precisely how his wisdom might be applied these days), and of the all-but-forgotten 20th-century black leader Robert Sobukwe. Like Nelson Mandela, Sobukwe saw his political organization banned in 1960 and was soon banished to Robben Island. Unlike Mr. Mandela, who continues to be a symbol of resistance, the militantly anticommunist Sobukwe disappeared into historical obscurity following his release and subsequent death.

In a tin box in his father's garage, deVilliers found letters from Sobukwe to de Villiers's great-aunt Nell Marquard, who wrote to him in prison in keeping with the Black Sash practice of helping political prisoners. These letters - which would make fascinating reading (according to de Villiers, efforts to find a publisher have thus far been unsuccessful) - not only illustrate the kind of man Sobukwe was, but also show the kind of relationship that could flourish between people of goodwill.

De Villiers recognizes the bleakness of prospects for the future. He seems to have written ``White Tribe Dreaming'' less in the hope of persuading his fellow Afrikaners to take a different tack than out of a need to present a more balanced picture of Afrikanerdom than he thinks is likely to prevail. Insofar as he opposes sanctions, expresses the belief that Afrikaners are unfairly caricatured in the rest of the world, and worries about the fate of the white tribe and about increasing violence among certain elements of the blacks, some may call his book an apologia. Yet it is not really a justification of South Africa's blatant evils, but rather a lament for the road not taken.

In contrast to de Villiers, South African novelist and critic J.M. Coetzee sees alienation from Africa as a key motif in the work of white South African writers and artists. A professor at the University of Cape Town and author of such novels as ``Waiting for the Barbarians,'' ``Life & Times of Michael K,'' and ``Foe,'' Coetzee organized his first book-length critical work around a matrix of provocative questions.

Why did the myth of a return to Eden not take hold in the garden colony of the Cape? Why did Europeans tend to view the Africans not as pre-lapse Adams and Eves or even as ``noble savages,'' but as ``idle'' and ``brutish''? Why did settlers neither hope to find paradise lost nor plan to build a city on a hill, as did their Puritan counterparts in North America?

Coetzee's answers to these questions are problematic rather than conclusive. Indeed, he poses the questions not so much to find answers as to generate critical themes for his book. Considered as a survey of white South African writing - which the author warns us it is not - it would be a rather misleading book. Coetzee is far more interested in pursuing his themes than in providing thorough and balanced readings of the writers whose work he ransacks to furnish his critical collage.

Thus, Coetzee ``shows us'' how novelists as disparate as the conservative C.M. van den Heever and the liberal Alan Paton share a quasi-feudal, pastoralist vision, and how even the anti-pastoralist Olive Schreiner wrote ``The Story of an African Farm'' (1883) about a farm even though she was against the intolerance it seems to represent. (His reading of Paton - oddly - is based almost entirely on the kind of language spoken by a Zulu character in just one of his books, ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'')

Although Coetzee's arguments are flawed, and his approach sometimes both confused and confusing (at the end of a chapter that seems to condemn the pastoral for excluding blacks from the landscape, he suddenly shifts into a defense of the pastoral and of old-fashioned criticism that pays more heed to what is present in a work than to what is absent from it), he has nonetheless written a richly suggestive book with valuable and intriguing insights.

The opening chapter, ``Idleness in South Africa,'' provides significant clues to a possible origin of the particular brand of racism that took root in South Africa. (Crudely summarized, the idle Afrikaners feared the temptation of emulating the idleness they perceived in the ``natives,'' even as the ``natives'' were constrained to work while the white man disdained manual labor.)

Two chapters on the landscape are also very good. One is on the failure of European eyes, nurtured on the streams, clouds, mists, and verdure of a watery climate, to find beauty, variety, or meaning in the dry, brown, rocky, sun-scarred terrain of the South Africa beyond the pretty, gardenlike Cape. The other examines some far more successful efforts by contemporary South African poets at ``reading'' - and even finding a way of ``being in'' - the landscape. Yet Coetzee cannot refrain from raising the question of what all this empty space in the landscape might signify: a failure, perhaps, to take account of black people who are there, but somehow ``not seen'' by a white tribe intent on its dreams?

``White Writing'' is likely to be read as a book that ``exposes'' the paternalistic racism of the South African pastoral novel, while condemning what its author rashly calls the Darwinian-inspired racism of Sarah Gertrude Millin's novels (in which colored people appear as ``God's Stepchildren,'' unfortunate victims of racial mixing) and revealing the lack of communal values in the poets who commune so beautifully with South Africa's ``empty spaces.'' Yet, a careful reader may note that almost every condemnation is balanced either by an apologia or by an appreciation. Coetzee shifts from sympathetic admiration to harsh criticism with the ease of a chameleon. He is hard to pin down, but certainly fascinating to watch.

Confronting an impasse, both deVilliers and Coetzee exhibit a confusion understandable in the situation. DeVilliers reveals his confusion openly: He cannot see a way out; he honestly doesn't know what should be done. Coetzee shies away from expressing his confusion directly, yet his intellectual enterprise is shot through with ambivalences. Readers will get from both these books a deep sense of the helplessness and frustration experienced by South Africans and outsiders who ponder that country's future. The cultural explanations sought by Coetzee prove as elusive as the political solutions sought by deVilliers.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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