EXCEPTIONS DO NOT always prove the rule, for Christopher Hope's A Separate Development is quite singular in its attempt to deal humorously with contemporary South Africa. South Africa's political system and troubles have long been the concern of the country's best writers, and Hope is following a very well-worn path. But he has written a book that despite the gravity of its concerns is very funny.

Though comedy in the classic sense has always been regarded as close to tragedy, writers on South Africa for understandable reasons have felt humor to be out of place. But humor not only intensifies the tragic aspects but also adds credibility to the characters -- they sound more like ourselves.

The hero of Hope's book, Harry Moto, is arrested for contravening the Immorality Act. He buys time from the policeman in charge, who sees South Africa's problems in sweeping philosophical terms, by promising to write an explanation of his own separate development. The policeman is expecting another Cry, the Beloved Country, but in describing Moto's journey from a member of the graduating class in the white St. Bonaventure school to a bus boy at a drive-in restaurant, Hope neatly turns most of South Africa's shibboleths on their heads. A black friend teaches Harry the art of cringing, the act of assumed humility that always appeases the whites. Harry has no objection to cringing, he just wants to attain "the invisibility I'd so envied in the cleaners at St. Bonaventures," to become "in short, quite simply, 'the boy'".

Hope has an ear for the way people really talk, and though his characters are never idealized, his sense of humor emphasizes the absurdity of many of South Africa's laws and conventions. It is an indictment no less telling than those novels that are relentlessly grim, books that appear to edit their characters' speech and thinking so that they seem to resemble candidates for canonization rather than the actual participants in a real drama.