WHITE RHODESIA was always a special phenomenon of black Africa. Not only was it never really a British-ruled colony but life there for whites remained halcyon for more than a decade after most black African countries had won their independence by dint of military or political struggle.

Whites in Rhodesia gained from this temporary reprieve from history the firm belief that "our Africans," or "Afs" as they were better known, were truly the happiest and best treated anywhere in colonial Africa. They also held the firm conviction that their treatment of the African population was somehow gilded with special kindness and care.

Thus, when the war of liberation finally broke out in deadly earnest in 1976 after the collapse of Portugal's African empire, the shock of seeing the great illusion shattered was tremendous for the 280,000 whites, at a loss to understand why these happiest of all black Africans were turning against their benevolent masters.

David Caute, a British professor-journalist, calls his study of white behavior and morality in the midst of this myth-shattering war "Under the Skin," apparently a double entendre referring partly to his probe of the white mind-set below the thin surface of civility and partly to the rising white irritation at the black threat to their protected paradise.

His objective, he says at the outset, is to unmask "the myths, evasions, legends, reifications and strategies of false consciousness; the bones, nerves and flesh of an ideology." Caute wastes no time in making clear his own strong ideological perspective on white Rhodesia, stating in the same paragraph that his subject is "a collective state of mind; more particularly the extraordinary mental maneuvers by which pillage is termed responsible government, repression becomes law and order, usurpation is called authority, violence is lauded as restraint; the peculiar indignation, the outrage, the sense of ingratitude experienced by the conquerors when the dispossessed natives attempt to recover by force what was taken so recently from them by force."

Past supporters of white Rhodesia and those nostalgic for the colonial past would probably do well to stop their reading of Caute's work here, for they are likely to find the rest an outrage to their sensitivities. But for others, there is a lot to be learned by way of gaining a sense of the daily sounds and smells of Rhodesia, the manner in which whites lived, felt and spoke about the trauma they were undergoing in those final years.

Having visited Rhodesia repeatedly during the years Caute is most concerned with--1976 to 1980--I find his detailed chronological account of the slow death of the great white dream quite realistic and accurate. What's more, his caustic style of writing adds spice to the rich flavor he gives to the texture of white Rhodesian society --its obsession with sports, school uniforms, tea and cakes and keeping up "standards."

His technique for bringing alive his account is to intersperse his own repeated probes of white attitudes, carried out through interviews with scores of Rhodesians from all walks of life, with war vignettes--one after another white farm families die in ambushes or rocket attacks on homesteads, cold-blooded massacres of blacks are carried out by the security forces in the name of law and order, and equally hideous massacres of white missionaries or civilians are perpetuated by black guerrillas in the name of the liberation struggle.

Caute brings home time and again the horrors of wanton white and black killing with fair impartiality. He obviously supports the goals of the black nationalist struggle, but this does not prevent him from portraying the incomprehensible cruelty of some guerrillas toward whites and their black allies, the senselessness of shooting down defenseless white missionaries or the fact that many a time the "freedom fighters" were more interested in drink and women than in fighting.

He also makes clear the whites' total incapacity to re late the massacres perpetrated by the Rho desian security forces against the black civil ian population to those inflicted on white

civilians by the nationalist guerrillas. In this

sense a balance of insensitivities--whites toward

black suffering and blacks toward white suffering--

is pretty well kept throughout the long narrative.

The main shortcoming of Caute's study lies in its harsh and unforgiving judgment of white Rhodesians without any comparison with the behavior of other "white tribes" that have tried to put down roots in black Africa over the past two centuries. There was in fact something peculiar and special to race relations in Rhodesia. They were, almost to the end, far better than the icy, hostile ones prevailing in South Africa even today and far different from those of colonial French Africa where intermarriages took place and a small elite of educated blacks was assimilated into mother France.

However paternalistic and exploitative white Rhodesians were, the fact remains blacks there reached a higher level of education under white rule than anywhere else in colonial Africa or for that matter in most black-run countries today.

Thus Caute totally misses the point when he writes that "only 60 percent of black children of primary- school age are actually attending school." This level was already one of the highest in Africa. In the same vein, Zimbabweans came to independence with more university graduates than any other black African country. Clearly, it was not all bad as Caute would have us believe.

Similarly, race relations never reached the level of hostility one would have expected after multiple massacres and misdeeds on both the white and black nationalist sides and were probably still better in the worst times of the war than they were in South Africa even in peace. But Caute never explores this fascinating and seemingly inexplicable aspect of the white-black nexus in Rhodesia.

Finally, Caute never really puts together the pieces of white racist attitudes, presented in his multiple encounters and interviews with a wide variety of Rhodesians, into a coherent overall picture of something one might term an "ideology"--something he promised to explore at the start. Nor does he systematically analyze the "strategies of false consciousness" he initially claimed was his subject.

In this sense, there is a lack of depth to the study that will probably bother scholars much more than readers simply interested in obtaining a sense of the incredibly illusory life and times that prevailed during the final years of the last real colony in black Africa. The latter, however, will not be disappointed or bored by Caute's gripping account of "The Death of White Rhodesia."