THE MIRROR AT MIDNIGHT

South African Journey

By Adam Hochschild

Viking. 309 pp. $19.95

THE DEC. 16, 1838, Battle of Blood River between the Zulus and the Voortrekkers, ancestors of today's Afrikaners, marked a historic turning point in the struggle for power and domination in South Africa. Massive firepower brought the Voortrekkers a lopsided victory. The triumph, which they ascribed to divine intervention, led them to bequeath to their posterity a conquered black majority, stolen black lands and an array of myths designed to justify white supremacy and black servitude.

Several of these myths form the leitmotif of Adam Hochschild's memoir, The Mirror at Midnight, an insightful and detailed account of the influence of South Africa's turbulent past on the evolution, refining and reforming of the apartheid system.

The first of these myths is now almost totally discredited. It claims that during the Great Trek -- the epic migration from the British-ruled Cape of discontented whites of Dutch, French and German descent -- the Voortrekkers found the interior of South Africa uninhabited. Hochschild provides evidence, some of it from the Voortrekkers themselves, showing that black tribes lived in most of South Africa long before the arrival of the white man.

The most potent myth concerns the murder of a revered Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief, and his men, by the Zulu king Dingane. The act and the subsequent tracking down and massacre of an entire camp of Voortrekker families by Dingane's impis (regiments of Zulu warriors) precipitated the Battle of Blood River. Most Afrikaners, aided by historians who have rewritten South African history to serve white interests, consider Retief a martyr whose death is indicative of black treachery and barbarism.

Hochschild shows how Afrikaner historians, like America's early historians who routinely doctored facts and evidence exposing the perfidy and duplicity of white settlers in their dealings with native Americans, have craftily covered up Retief's double-dealing and ulterior motives. It turns out that Dingane acted from a well-founded fear that once whites gained a foothold in his kingdom, they would quickly take over his land and subjugate his people.

Mirror at Midnight is largely based on Hochschild's visit to South Africa in December 1988, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Blood River. He found the country's whites steeped in celebrations commemorating the event. Yet there was a split in the Afrikaner community. The right-wing Conservative Party and the fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) organized their own ceremonies to compete with those of the governing National Party, which they claimed had betrayed Afrikanerdom and desecrated Retief's august memory by instituting reforms and talking about "power-sharing" with blacks.

As Hochschild follows the two rival processions during stops in various white towns across the country, he paints colorful vignettes illustrating the surrealism and shallowness of white life and politics, into which he weaves poignant stories about the plight of the black majority. He takes us into black ghettos where we hear the wrenching testimonies of victims of police brutality, apartheid-induced poverty, and black-on-black violence.

We enter the gold mines where we meet single black men separated from their families by the inhuman migratory labor system. We even hear Harry Oppenheimer, the mining magnate, spout a "painless liberalism" in defense of his profiting from the system. Oppenheimer's behavior is in contrast to the courage and steadfast principles of the four Watson brothers in Port Elizabeth. Rugby stars who gave up careers for their belief in justice for all, the Watson brothers became targets of assassination and insults, and were ostracized by the white community. They found complete acceptance among the militant black communities of New Brighton.

The majority of white South Africans, Hochschild asserts, are "summer folks" completely oblivious to the suffering, feelings and aspirations of their black compatriots. He likens them to the French aristocracy during the reign of Louis XVI and the Russian gentry before the Bolshevik Revolution.

Their denial of reality is nurtured by the media, especially the government-controlled television, whose main fare are dog shows, sports and American programs such as "The Cosby Show" and "Misdaad In Miami" ("Miami Vice" dubbed in Afrikaans). Hochschild properly points out that white South Africans are not alone in this escapism. In the United States and Europe many find stories about homelessness, the poor, racism, the degradation of the environment and the proliferation of nuclear weapons intrusive on their peace and quiet.

Hochschild's liberal bias sometimes leads him to sound like an apologist for the African National Congress, and to ignore the liberation movement's shortcomings and mistakes. He has nothing but scorn for Chief Buthelezi, leader of Inkatha; he sees the development of a black middle class in South Africa's ghettos as serving apartheid's interests; and he fails to give due credit to President De Klerk for his courage in instituting radical reforms.

Nonetheless, The Mirror at Midnight is an important addition to the debate about South Africa and the challenges facing its various people as they wrestle with a painful past in their determined struggle to abolish the remnants of apartheid and forge a more just society.

Mark Mathabane is the author of "Kaffir Boy" and "Kaffir Boy in America."