YEARS ago, a white South African named Alan Paton wrote a book called ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'' Paton was not a professional writer, but a prison administrator. Much of the book he scribbled on hotel stationery on lonely nights during a tour of Scandinavia and the United States to study prison management.
But such was Paton's passion in telling the story of racial injustice in South Africa that the book was an instant best-seller and rocketed him to international fame.
On a number of occasions after that I visited Alan Paton at his flower-girt home in Kloof in South Africa's sub-tropical province of Natal. As he puttered about his garden, he would analyze the situation as he saw it at the time. He rued the hardening of attitudes on both sides, black and white. There were moments of despair, if not hopelessness. There were personal tribulations; he was subjected to police surveillance and harassment and for a time the government took his passport away and refused to let him leave the country.
But if Paton were here today, I think his eyes would be bright as they peered over his reading glasses and he would - at long, long last - see hope in what has for all too long been a dismal South African situation.
Is the weeping about to cease in Paton's beloved country?
That might be too much to count on, given the lingering depth of racial antagonism among some, and the awesome challenge ahead of moving from white supremacy to multiracialism.
But the events of last week offer hope that if South Africa has not yet emerged from its long passage through darkness, there is a brighter prospect for peaceful solution of its complex problems.
It was an incredible scene. South Africa's white President, Frederik de Klerk sat side by side with Nelson Mandela, long-imprisoned leader of the long-banned African National Congress. They were photographed shaking hands, smiling, treating each other as equals, with civility, with respect.
This does not mean that there are not major differences between them.
Indeed, at their press conference after three days of talks in Cape Town they politely interrupted each other to make those differences clear. Mr. Mandela, for instance, believes foreign economic sanctions against South Africa should continue. Mr. De Klerk does not.
But the meeting, and what it portends for the future, is a watershed in South African politics. Mandela and De Klerk emerged not as representatives of polarized black and white factions, but as two South Africans anxious to negotiate a nonviolent solution to an explosive situation.
``An important breakthrough,'' was how Mr. De Klerk described the talks. Mr. Mandela said the discussions took place in a spirit of cordiality and conciliation.
While the actual hard negotiations lie ahead, the South African government appears ready for early compromise on the release of political prisoners and political immunity. The African National Congress, meanwhile, seems ready to reappraise its endorsement of armed struggle against the white government.
Both sides seem to recognize that they have far more to gain by going forward, than by permitting the negotiations to collapse.
But there are, of course, other and less constructive players on the scene. To the left of the African National Congress are more extreme black nationalist groups who want no negotiations with whites and who think the ANC has sold out. The Azanian People's Organization greeted the outcome of last week's talks with an announcement accusing the ANC of forging an alliance with the governing National Party.
To the right of Mr. De Klerk's ruling party are hard-line white extremists who similarly disapprove of the negotiations that now seem destined to take place.
But both Mandela and De Klerk are counting on the political center - both black and white - to give them majority support. Across much of South Africa last week you could hear an almost audible sigh of relief over the breaking of a racial log-jam.
There may be fewer tears ahead in Alan Paton's beloved country.