SOUTH AFRICA WAS ALREADY troubled and racially divided years ago when Jock of the Bushveld , an equivalent of Lassie , was still its best known literary product. But for the first half of this century South Africa was a somewhat static society at the tip of a sleepy continent, and literarily unproductive. The, two potent forces, long suppressed, burst forth quite suddenly: white Afrikaner nationalism, embodied in the Nationalist Party, which swept South Africa's 1948 elections, and black African nationalism, which eventually swept the rest of the continent and soon haunted South Africa's borders.

In legislating and enforcing a rigid system of racial apartheid, the Afrikaners -- 2.5 million descendents of 17-th-century Dutch immigrants -- have always had to deal with dissidents, including (among the whites) demonstrators, a feisty opposition press, and novelists such as Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer. But the principal dissident writers have been English-speaking whites, not Afrikaners. and English-speaking whites are increasingly impotent in South African politics. The authorities simply suppress their books at home, affect disinterest in their popularity aboard, and even permit them (nowadays) to travel relatively freely.

Andre Brink, because he is an Afrikaner, represents a more troublesome problem for the government. His newest novel. A Dry White Season, continues and intensifies his decade-long assult on apartheid, and does so precisely at the time when the agressive solidarity of the laager -- the drawing of Afrikaner wagons into a tight defensive circle -- dominates the embattled Afrikaners' politics and literature. Small wonder Brink owns the distinction of being the first Afrikaner novelist whose books have been banned before their first sales.

Brink, now 44, left South Africa to study in Paris in 1959. There he confusedly rediscovered, as an adult, the innocent pleasure that in South Africa is reserved for very young children at play: the interaction of different races as equals. There too he heard the news from Sharpeville: South African police had shot down several dozen black demonstrators, including women and children. His disorientation Common among well-traveled white South Africans) and the shock of Sharpeville might have driven Brink to emigrate. Instead, they drove him home to write.

Although Brink has been touted in America as "the obvious inheritor of Alan Paton's mantle," Paton speaks to the heart, evoking sorrow while Brink shouts to the conscience, invoking anger. And compared with Paton's or Gordimer's polished and graceful prose, Brink's writing seems crude indeed. Andre Brink is simply not a "great writer; but he's an urgent, political one and an Afrikaner other Afrikaners can't ignore.

The harassment Brink encountered as leader of the "Sestigers" (or "Sixtiers," a band of dissident Afrikaans writers) supplied a theme for his first novel, Looking on Darkness (1968), in which a colored (i.e., mixed blood) actor returns from European triumphs only to be persecuted for organizing a relatively innocuous political theater group. But that novel, like his next, An Instant in the Wind (1974) -- and like Paton's earlier Too Late the Phalarope -- stands primarly as an indictment of South Africa's harsh punishment of interracial sex. Brink's third novel, Rumours of Rain (1977),,. relies ambitiously on the stream of consciousness of an unfeeling Afrikaner businessman to warm Afrikanerdom of moral doom. Looking on Darkness was banned as blasphemous and obscene; the censors sat on Rumours long enough to block its distribution.

A Dry White Season , Brink's fourth novel, boldly attacks the security police and examines the tendency of political prisoners to commit sucicide -- or to die of "natural causes" -- prior to trial. The terrorism statues and unlimited pretrial detention have resulted in many such deaths, Steve Biko's in 1977 being the most notorious. The state's ability to suppress evidence (rather than judicial corruption) makes it difficult to challenge a police autopsy report in court.

Brink's Afrikaner protagonist, school teacher Ben Du Toit, is outraged by a magistrate's finding of sucicide, during detention, of a timid black laborer Du Toit had befriended. Having examined the body, Du Toit recognizes murder and sets out to prove it. The quest costs him his job, family, frineds and ultimatley his life, but not before Du Toit and his supporters have suffered systematic intimidation and torture. Under other circumstances, this might seem a harmless little thriller. But, insists, "Nothing in this novel has been invented."

A Dry White Season has an avowedly political purpose: to jolt Afrikaners into recognition, to deny them the "Nuremburg" defense, "so that it will not be possible for any man ever to say again: I knew nothing about it." An English translations are his own), Brink reaches for that unexpectedly potent strand of Afrikaner thought: an almost religious repugnance toward governmental corruption. And by using a "very ordianry" Afrikaner as victim, Brink proclaims that no one in South Africa is any longer safe.

Intriguingly, the censors lifted their initial ban on A Dry White Season, arguing that readers will dismiss the book as "shallow" and "one-sided." Perhaps this decision merely supports the current and much ballyhooed policy of liberalization; perhaps the Biko scandal has already forced a clean-up of the worst police abuse; perhaps the censors simply judge afrikaner temperament more shrewdly than Brink.

But there's an argument, and a good one, that big books have sparked change throughout South Africa's recent history. Small changes may not suffice, but with Brink unleashed, they're likely to be a bit larger and more frequent. This much is certain: the era of the trivial South African novel is dead, and courage killed it.