WHILE SOUTH AFRICA is currently the center of attraction in the eye of the world, one way to understand its historical complexities is through its literature. This can be easily done by looking at four novels by black writers about certain watershed periods. They provide a useful introduction to the tragedy now unfolding.

The basis of South Africa's segregation policy lies in the 1913 Natives' Land Act. This set aside a certain amount of land (under 10 percent) for the sole occupation of blacks, but, at the same time, reserved the rest of South Africa for whites. It also made sharecropping and tenant farming by blacks on white-owned lands illegal.

Solomon Plaatje, one of the founders of the African National Congress, responded to this act with great bitterness in his political book Native Life in South Africa (available at Common Concerns, 1347 Connecticut Ave. NW) and in his novel Mhudi (published by Three Continents Press, 1346 Connecticut Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20036). "Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913," Plaatje wrote, "the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah on the land of his birth." Mhudi was completed in 1920 and is an historical epic, examining the period in the 1830s when Chief Mzilikazi and the Ndebele people in the Transvaal were defeated by an alliance of blacks and whites. Plaatje attributes the defeat of Mzilikazi to his tyranny, his unjust taxation of his subject peoples and to his defiance of social, natural and divine law. But Mhudi is more than a mere historical novel. Plaatje used the events of the 1830s as an analogue, a model, for the period after 1913. To do this he employed the symbol of Halley's Comet. The appearance of the comet in 1835 was seen as heralding the demise of Mzilikazi's power; its reappearance in 1910 was used by Plaatje as a warning to the South African government that unjust laws would meet a similar fate.

The consequence of the 1913 Land Act was to push many thousands of people off the land and create a new problem for the cities. This massive influx of population into the towns, hastened by the effects of the First World War, prompted the South African government to enact the 1923 Urban Areas Act which introduced so-called influx control -- the tight regulation of movement for blacks. If Mhudi is the novel of the Land Act, Modikwe Dikobe's The Marabi Dance is the novel of the Urban Areas Act. Although written in the early 1960s, the book is set in Johannesburg in the 1930s and '40s and is an absolutely authentic portrayal of the struggle for survival amongst the poor in the heartless conditions of the city of gold. Dikobe has a fine memory for the detail of the slum conditions of the time -- for the shebeen queens, the rickshas, the fah-fee runners, the clergymen and religious con-men, the police and the criminals. The novel reaches its climax with a further bout of segregation -- the destruction of the multiracial and black suburbs close to the city center and the removal of blacks to the ghettos of Soweto and elsewhere, many miles from the center.

The Marabi Dance (published by Heinemann African Writers Series, No. 124, London, 1973) also portrays the vibrant music and culture which had sprung up in the city amongst the poor. "The dancers swayed from side to side like mealie stalks; the right and left feet moving forward and back like springbok crossing a river. They sang as loudly as they could, singing for joy to the spirits of their forefathers. George ran his short fingers over the black and white keyboard as if they were moved by an electric charge. He sang with his face pitched to the ceiling. Martha moved like a cocopan full of mine sand turning at an intersection. Her round female baritone voice filled the hall and made it vibrate with sound. The flies, which had become a nuisance to the dancers, buzzed in harmony, and the rats and mice between the wall and the false front of the hall, scrambled into the ceiling." This culture collapsed when the circumstances of its existence were destroyed, when people were moved, seldom willingly, to Soweto.

PLAATJE'S NOVEL dealt with the conflicts on the battlefield in 19th- century South Africa and hints at the change to a political conflict. But the difference between Mhudi and The Marabi Dance signals the break from the struggles over land to the struggles over labor. Plaatje was a writer more at home in a rural setting: Dikobe is an urban novelist and, from the 1930s onwards, the dominant concern of most black South African writers has been with city themes.

The Marabi Dance ends just after the conclusion of the Second World War -- the world of Johannesburg and South Africa had forever changed. The advent of the Nationalist Party to power in 1948 brought in a wide range of repressive laws. Among these was the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which introduced segregated education and condemned blacks to an inferior education system. One of the teachers who resigned rather than submit to this system was Ezekiel Mphahlele. "I dismissed the Code as being for a race of slaves; for pupils who were not expected to change as well as be changed by the environment, but to fit themselves into it; for unsettled communities doomed for ever to shift from one place to another without the necessity to become either a stable peasantry or urban communities."

Ironically, this despised Act gave an impetus to Mphahlele's writing career since he turned first to journalism and then to exile. Soon after he left the country he wrote and published his autobiography Down Second Avenue (Doubleday, 1971). Autobiography, together with the short story, became the most popular literary form of the 1930s, perhaps because of the more authentic voice that personal testimony seems to create.

The banning of political organizations and individuals during the 1960s set off a new generation of writers from those that went before. Black consciousness as an ideology grew. The culmination of this political and social struggle was the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Nothing would ever be quite the same thereafter, and a novel which epitomizes this is Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1981). The book was begun before the 1976 uprising and completed afterwards. There is a distinct shift in style half-way through, symbolising this break in perception and consciousness. The effect of the Uprising was a psychological liberation -- "in those days, a new, a brand-new black woman and man had been created." The message of the book is clear: time is on the side of the oppressed who have won a new confidence that the future is theirs. "Vorster, you own guns," wrote Serote, "we own history."

The events of the past year have not yet produced a symptomatic novel. When one appears, as it no doubt will, it could do worse than use Halley's Comet as a symbol. Plaatje's warning of a 75-year cyclical revolution if injustice prevails has proved to be less than merely speculative, a remarkable piece of forward-thinking.