HISTORY may not so much repeat as reflect itself, still recognizable but changed. Even the most reliable of mirrors has its own subtle distortions, and no image is ever entirely to be trusted. At the 1900 Democratic National Convention, at the time of the Anglo-Boer War, support of the Boers, or Afrikaners, of South Africa was included in the platform. More recent Democratic conventions have routinely condemned them for their practice of apartheid. The image of the heroic Afrikaner defying the might of British imperialism has now become that of blacks, equally heroic, defying the might of an Afrikaner government. In truth, like other peoples, the Afrikaners are neither all saints nor all devils.

In Blood River, Barbara Villet, a former reporter for Life magazine married to Life photographer Grey Villet (an Afrikaner) has attempted to write a corrective to the current image of that people. Though liberal in sympathy, Villet offers neither an apology nor a defense. Her intention is rather to explain the Afrikaner and his policies by recounting his history from the early days at the Cape to the present split between the reformists and the conservatives. She also emphasizes the particular role religion has played in determining Afrikaner attitudes and responses. As counterpoint to the historical interpretation she has included interviews with a cross-section of Afrikaners -- journalists, bureaucrats, intellectuals and farmers.

The history of South Africa has all too often been a history of wrong turns taken rather than the failure of great and noble enterprises. If the Dutch had poured more money and settlers into the Cape, as they did into New York; if the British had been more sensitive to Afrikaner susceptibilities; if the Afrikaners after their defeat by the British had not turned from the reconciliation advocated by Smuts and Botha to narrow sectarian nationalism; and if, in determining the future of all races in South Africa the Afrikaners had envisaged the suffering and dislocation to be endured by the blacks, Coloreds and Indians, perhaps South Africa's position would be different. But wishful thinking is no prescription for the present and Villet found the heady optimism of the Verwoerd era replaced by a lack of certainty about the once unquestionable destiny of the Afrikaners. The very title of the book is ironic; the battle of Blood River in 1838 was once thought to have signaled the utter defeat of the most formidable black force in South Africa. In reality, that period has been only an interlude.

Tom Vosloo, editor of Die Beeld, a leading Afrikaans newspaper that supports reform, put it like this: "We know that to survive we must adapt. We've no Masada complex. . . . This means it is up to us to devise a system in which people of particular nationalisms based on color can live together."

A more traditional but still somewhat flexible response was offered by a wine farmer: "Change is coming in South Africa because it has to, but it must grow naturally. . . . It does not follow that it would benefit all to hand the country over to them before they are ready to take responsibility for it . . . (That) would not simply destroy white privilege in South Africa but the black man's own best hope for the future along with it."

And from the courageous Beyers Naud,e, former moderator of the largest Dutch Reformed Church, a founder of the multi-racial Christian Institute, and now banned by the South African government -- which means, among other things, that he may not be publicly quoted in South Africa -- "I see the anguish of my people now. It is the anguish of a people that truly does not know what direction is left to it, for of late, the Afrikaners have lost their sense of self certainty. . . . For what is now required of the Afrikaner is that he abandon an ideology which had given him a sense of supremacy and security . . . at a time when knows the survival of his nation is once again threatened. . . . That is humanly almost too much to ask of any people, especially one that has been politically and religionally indoctrinated for decades."

What strikes Villet about Vosloo and the majority of the Afrikaners she meets is their assumption that it is still their particular responsibility to " 'devise' a new political model that would shape the future of South Africa's black majority." It is an assumption that the Afrikaners bitterly resented when they themselves were under British rule, but fail to acknowledge in their own conduct.

There have always been two contradictory elements present in the Afrikaners. The one part is best exemplified by Jan Smuts, a Boer general who rose to become a British field marshal and a founder of the United Nations; it has been more ready to compromise, to work for wider goals, to include rather than exclude. And there has been another part which preferred radical action and extreme solutions; abandoning the Cape and British rule and moving out into the unknown interior, being prepared to separate every racial group even if it meant partitioning the country. That kind of stand is exemplified today in Dr. Andries Treurnicht and his Conservative Party who advocate a white-only South Africa while the prime minister talks of a new dispensation for all races.

Villet demonstrates how invalid the myth of a monolithic Afrikaner is, but her failure to include interviews with non-Afrikaners detracts from the overall effect. By concentrating only on the Afrikaner viewpoint she falls into the same error she accuses them of -- seeing South Africa, past, present and future only in Afrikaner terms.

Blood River is for the general reader rather than the scholar, though one suspects that less history and more interviews would have been more interesting for such a reader. Villet has done her homework and an appropriate amount of legwork as well, but her prose suffers from that ebullient use of clich,e characteristic of popular magazines: maidens are "nubile," skycrapers "loom," financial districts are "fusty" and the usual soft breezes "play." Her image of the Afrikaner is clearer, certainly just, but not definitive. They are an elusive, complex and paradoxical people. Smuts, an early supporter of Jewish aspirations, once compared the Boers with the Jews: " 'They make demands. They are a bitter recalcitrant little people . . . impatient of leadership and ruinously quarrelsome among themselves." A people doomed or destined to be one of history's catalysts.