WHAT A STUNNING image from contemporary South Africa: "There are, in Johannesburg," journalist James North writes in Freedom Rising, "a couple of curious cases of geniuine multi-racialism. Both are giant-scale public chess games. . . . At each place, blacks and whites regularly play each other, trundling the enormous pieces around the board, while a mixed crowd of onlookers eagerly discusses the progress of the game. Nowhere else in the city can you see sights like a middle-aged white man nodding thoughtfully as a young black man in jeans expounds on the pitfalls of a certain defensive strategy."

Vincent Crapanzano's Waiting hasn't a scene to match this, but it is without doubt the finest and most valuable work on the Southern African predicament yet written.

How these books differ, when superficially they appear to have a good deal in common, has its own significance. The writers are both American, both have a passionate abhorrence of apartheid, and both elected to spend a considerable time on research that encompassed not only the immediate but much historical and other background material, too.

In Waiting Crapanzano, an anthropologist, set himself to studying the effects of domination on those who dominate by living in a small village near Cape Town and overtly collecting material from his subjects, the white population. Ideally, he says, he should have worked with both the dominating and the dominated, but this was legally precluded and "had I spent too much time with non- whites, I could have endangered their lives."

North made instead a "clandestine" journey lasting over four years, told whites he was a geographer, associated with blacks and took to risking life, as Studs Turkel puts it in a jacket blurb, by carrying out errands for political activists. Not that he himself seems to have ever been in any mortal danger, given the evidence plus the degree of immunity afforded a United States citizen.

Then each man sat down and wrote: one in grave, measured tones, the other with unbridled indignation.

"This book is fact," North asserts in his preface. But before long, the emotionally- loaded adjectives -- "weasel agents," etc. -- seem as manipulative as they are unnecessary. Inconsistencies, misspelled Afrikaans, patently specious reasoning and wholly alien Americanisms in reported speech don't bolster confidence, neither do punches pulled during interviews characterized by ingratiating behavior. Above all, a suspicion begins to grow, always nasty in a "book of fact," that the writer is prone to believe anything he hears, provided it fits his thesis. "Another outstanding PAC leader," North tells us, "Zephania Mothopeng, was at one stage tortured so badly with electric shocks that when he reached for a metal cup in his cell afterwards sparks leapt from his fingers."

Firm editing would have made an enormous difference of course, for Freedom Rising still contains many passages worth reading. The section on domestic servants, for example, is superbly done, and James North has a fine reporter's eye for the telling picture. But even at its best, this book can only fuel the outrage felt by those opposed to apartheid; it takes a very different sort of book to deepen our understanding of Southern Africa, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of any response.

And a very different sort of writer, too. One like Vincent Crapanzano who can say, "I learned that it is possible to have a certain sympathy even for people whose values one finds reprehensible."

This is undoubtedly part of what makes Waiting such a singular book. Gone are the predictable stereotypes, the stale generalizations that can deny a people their humanity. Instead, come these voices:

"What tempers the idea of black violence," says the wife of an Afrikaner minister, "is the guilt I think one feels. One almost feels it would be just retribution."

"What angers me," says another Afrikaner, "is that you see in me your own underbelly." And Crapanzano admits this could be partially true of that "Happily distant land," which Waiting often brings too close for comfort.

In the next breath he provides a sharp reminder that here is a society so alien nothing should be presumed on the basis of life elsewhere. He speaks, for example, of the whites' "primordial fear that comes from the absence of any possibility of a vital relationship with most of the people around one."

GRADUALLY, as the reader grows to know the whites of the village Wyndal, who emerge as vividly as characters in a well-crafted novel, statements like that gain painful clarity. Much will probably cause surprise: the dizzy gulf between English-speaker and Afrikaner, the genuine distress felt by Wyndal tourists who have observed racial hatred in America ("they" don't hate blacks, they "know" them), the staggering increase in religious activity to deflect "the mundane future into a transcendent one" -- or indeed, an attempt to focus on a different Armageddon.

Most importantly, Crapanzano noticed something about those who dominated. "Their present seemed devoid of the vitality I associate with leading a fulfilling life," he says. They were not in "angst" or deadened by guilt but simply waiting, closed off, isolated in a kind of psychological apartheid institutionally reinforced, waiting for something, anything, to happen. "In such circumstances," he points out, "there can be no real recognition of the other -- no real appreciation of his subjectivity. He becomes at once a menial object to be manipulated and a mythic object to be feared. He cannot be counted in his own humanity."

Black's move.