RETURNING to South Africa after an absence of many years is a journey of hope, tinged with anxiety.
Hope, because two men of remarkable stature - white President Frederik de Klerk and black leader Nelson Mandela - are dragging South Africa out of years of racial oppression. Anxiety, because white and black extremists of the political right and left seek to frustrate this promising prospect.
The returning visitor is confronted by a land of acute contrasts.
On the one hand, much of the legal apparatus of apartheid has been scrapped since I worked in South Africa as a correspondent. There are no more separate entrances for whites and blacks in government offices, no more segregated park benches, no more separate seating by race in trains and buses. Blacks generally cannot afford to buy into white areas, but the legal impediment to them doing so is gone. Blacks and whites now share beaches, wait on each other in stores, and work beside each other in offices.
On Cape Town's magnificent new foreshore, blacks and whites dine together at open-air restaurants. Atop Cape Town's exquisite Table Mountain, a white man holds hands with a black woman - an act that in the age of apartheid would have sent both of them to jail. In South Africa today, there is a dramatic breaking down of racial barriers. President De Klerk, in moving words on television, apologizes for the misery that apartheid has caused in the past.
But this new concord is threatened by widespread violence and terror. Friends warn you not to drive on certain roads after dark. Giant armored troop carriers guard bridges and fly-overs from which stones have been hurled at white motorists. Blackened store fronts and shattered windows are evidence of recent rioting. It is unwise to hike alone. The newspaper columns are littered with accounts of kidnappings and shootings, such as the one a few days ago in which five white men were murdered in an East Lond on nightspot.
On the road over which we drive from Port Elizabeth to the university town of Grahamstown, an official of Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) is ambushed a couple of hours ahead of us by machine-gun-firing opponents. Guns are everywhere. A sign at the entrance to the United States Information Service library in Cape Town warns somberly: "Weapons strictly prohibited."
Much of the time the violence is politically-inspired. Right-wing white extremists act against nonwhite leaders and politicians they perceive to be on the brink of assuming power. Assassinated ANC leader Chris Hani, a communist who ironically had been preaching moderation, was the victim of such forces.
At the other end of the spectrum, radical black extremists respond violently to Mr. Hani's murder and impatiently against Mandela's appeals for an orderly transition to democracy in South Africa.
Some of the violence is straightforwardly criminal, mostly on the part of frustrated nonwhites who have been confined to a third-world standard of living in shacks and shanty towns, while privileged whites have maintained a first-world living standard.
Promised now, perhaps for early next year, are elections in which all South Africans, black and white, will vote as equals and which will presumably place the black majority in control. There will be a new flag, probably a new national anthem, possibly even a new capital.
But those are relatively easy decisions compared to the immediate task of keeping the spoilers at bay while De Klerk and Mandela try to hammer out the transitional process in difficult negotiations with an assortment of other parties and political factions. White extremists target black leaders. Blacks target whites and fellow blacks who stand in their way. Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela's estranged wife, fans the flames of black radicalism. Chief Mangosthu Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, obstructs the proce ss while bargaining for a special role for himself in the new South Africa.
The change for the better that has already taken place in South Africa is remarkable. It would be a tragedy if current violence is allowed to thwart the even larger gains that seem within the grasp of this lovely but tortured land.