South Africa Seen With Exile's Eyes

Author Mary Benson left her homeland 24 years ago; today, she finds more hope. INTERVIEW

MARY BENSON, veteran South African author who chose exile 24 years ago after being banned for her opposition to apartheid, is encouraged by the recent changes in her country. ``What gives one a lot of hope is that there are so many fantastic people - young and old, black and white - who are working together very hard and creatively towards the new South Africa,'' she said in an interview before her return to Britain recently.

Benson, known for her 1986 biography of ANC leader Nelson Mandela (``Nelson Mandela'') and a history of the African National Congress, (``The African Patriots''), was in South Africa to launch her autobiography. (``A Far Cry: The Making of a South African,'' was published in Britain early this year, and is due from Viking in the United States in December.)

She and her writings were banned in South Africa in 1965 after she had been covering a series of political trials as a freelance journalist. After much agonizing about the merits of going into exile, Benson chose an exit permit in April 1966.

``I felt it might be the greatest mistake of my life,'' she writes in her autobiography, reflecting the constant dilemma of an exile.

Today she is more philosophical and appears to be happy with the way her life has worked out. She says she has become too dependent on the people around her in Britain to contemplate returning to South Africa permanently.

`I THINK there is no going back now,'' she says, in a reflective mood after two months of traveling around South Africa and renewing old acquaintances.

But even now Benson could not travel freely. Her visa was restricted and issued on the condition that she not engage in any professional activities - despite the fact that the government purports to have lifted all restrictions on political activity.

Benson reflects the insecurity of an exile and readily concedes their shortcomings:

``I think - in exile - we tend to greatly oversimplify and also not properly appreciate the creative work that is being done here,'' she says.

``With the [once-banned African National Congress] I am aware of the enormous problems of any organization coming in from exile and not having much administrative expertise,'' she says. ``I think the returning exiles will have a lot to discover about this country.''

Benson is an English-speaking South African who grew up in the citadel of Dutch-descended Afrikaners in Pretoria. Her father administered the city's main hospital.

Unlike most political exiles, Benson has never joined a political party or felt at home with the revolutionary theory that demands writers and artists allow their creativity to be harnessed for the liberation struggle.

``I feel, as a writer, one doesn't really get caught up,'' she says. ``In recent years I have felt very skeptical about dogma. ... It's probably one of the great problems of the world today.''

Benson is worried about the resistance of the white right-wing, the militancy of black youth, and the apparent failure of current investigations to root out assassins who operated under the cover of sanctioned death squads.

But she is hopeful that a truly just society can emerge in South Africa: ``I do feel much more hopeful now than in 1966 when I left,'' she says. ``An important factor is how many significant Afrikaners are right in the forefront of change - thinkers, academics, church people, and businessmen.''

She is also concerned about continuing ignorance among many white South Africans about the aspirations and circumstances of black South Africans.

``There are still a lot of English-speaking South Africans - including some of my relatives - who are still really stuck,'' she says. ``But I was quite encouraged that some of the Afrikaner academics at Stellenbosch University feel the change could come quite fast.''

She acknowledged in her autobiography how disturbing she had found the advice of well-known South African author Alan Paton given before events forced her to leave the country.

```If you want to fight race prejudice, fear, discrimination in South Africa,''' Paton had said, ```You can do it most powerfully and most comfortably outside the country. ... Understand, I'm not sneering. There's a fight to be fought outside South Africa, but it's a much easier one than the one here.'''

IN 1963 she became the first South African to testify before the United Nations Committee on Apartheid. She urged the British and United States governments to follow the UN's example of imposing economic sanctions on South Africa.

In her latest book, Benson also reflects on how reading Paton's celebrated novel about South Africa - ``Cry, the Beloved Country'' - changed the course of her life:

``Through its revelation of South Africa, the landscape, the people - the black people - `Cry, the Beloved Country' crashed open the mold in which my white consciousness had been formed.''

When she read the book in 1948, her role models were movie stars, not politicians and activists. She was working as the secretary of British film director David Lean and dreamed of a career in Hollywood.

After reading Paton's book, she developed a close friendship with the author and maintained a correspondence with him throughout her life.

She says Paton had enabled her to take a new look at her homeland and to break through the political naivet'e which was the lot of most white South Africans.

``This complex and marvelous country was my country,'' she writes. ``The place I had found boring and kept running away from was my heritage.''

Benson went on to work for the Rev. Michael Scott, an Anglican priest and champion of black South Africans who lobbied the United Nations for Nambian independence in the 1950s.

She first met Nelson Mandela and ANC veteran Walter Sisulu in Johannesburg in the early 1950s, and later became secretary to a fund for a lengthy treason trial in which the two men were among 156 defendants.

After three years of hearings, all 156 men were acquitted.

Benson renewed her acquaintance with Mandela on her recent trip: ``He's become a more deeply reflective person,'' she says. ``When he was young, he had a very hot temper.

``He's always had an air of authority and charisma. Now one feels he is a great statesman, something that is very rare in today's world,'' she says. ``He is extremely thoughtful and generous and has this absolute passion to unite people.''

When Benson visited Sisulu in the African National Congress's plush new offices in downtown Johannesburg recently, she recalled the past.

``I reminded him that when we first met in 1952, he just had this dark, poky little office - very shabby,'' she says. ``It was wonderful now seeing him functioning in this new place.''

But Benson was also struck by the cruel consequences of apartheid, seen in the sprawling shanty towns around the cities, and the ironies and paradoxes of the changing South Africa.

``I had heard much about Johannesburg becoming a really black city. When I went to see a movie, I saw it was absolutely packed with young blacks - there were only three whites there,'' she says.

``What struck me was how absolutely ludicrous it is that they don't have the vote.''

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