In the Orange Free State in South Africa, novelist Nadine Gordimer watched silently as a pair of 7-year-old boys, one white and one-black, walked across a farm together. The white boy carried a homemade slingshot; the black boy, a bag of stones. Every time the white boy wanted to shoot, he held out his hand and shouted, "Here," and the black boy gave him a stone.
"What hope is there for a white boy brought up like that?" asks Gordimer, whose newest novel, "burger's Daughter," was recently released in her country after a three month ban. "This order has been established in children of 7. One knows what happens afterwards -- the old master slave relationship asserts itself."
While witnessing such incidents seems to plunge her into despair, Gordimer says she has moments of optimism for her country's future.
When "Burger's Daughter" was pub lished in July, the government censored it, officially charging that, in the book, "the whites are the baddies, the blacks are goodies." Gordimer refused to appeal because, she says, "I didn't want to recognize [the board of censors'] authority. I'm it's victim, but I'm not going to recognize its mechanism. She has had two other novels banned -- one for 10 years, the other for 12.
"Burger's Daughter" was finally released after the censors themselves called in an expert in security matters who found that it did not endanger national security.
They [the government] regard me as a very disloyal South African," said Gordimer, who has lived there for all of her 56 years. "I condiser myself an intensely loyal South African. I care deeply for my country. If I didn't, I wouldn't still be there."
Gordimer says that a government official recently tried to discredit her views by writing to an American magazine, saying that she had lived abroad for some time. "I have never been out of South Africa for longer than two months," she says.
On the eve of her departure for the United Sates to promote "Burger's Daughter," Gordimer received a phone call from a researcher on an American a Communist?" Gordimer, who is not a Communist, was furious. But upon reflection she decided the question came "from a sense of security we don't know," and says she is envious of how safe people feel in Europe and the United States.
She assumes her telephone is bugged by the South African government, and has long gotten out of the habit of discussing sensitive subjects over the phone.
The researcher's question might be better asked for Rosa, Burger's ambivalent daughter. Her father, Lionel, and her mother ae leaders of the small, powerless South African Communist Party, Lionel Burger is eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Their only surving child, named for Rosa Luxemburg, has for her inheritance the hostility and surveillance of the government friendships with whites and blacks engaged in political activities counter to the state's interest, and memories of life with a father who was a hero for many.
"'Burger's Daughter' is not a political novel with an intent to pursuade people," Gordimer explains. "I don't write propaganda. But it is political in the sense that what happens to the people is shaped by polities." It is political in the way that Andre Malraux's "Man's Fate" is a political novel, she adds, and with a laugh and a disclaimer of any qualitative comparison she points out that "War and Peace" has political aspects.
When Gordimer is asked about her own problems living in South Africa, she says: "It is a political act to continue a relationship with someone who is suspect. Guilt by association is a relity in South Africa. One mustn't kid one-that one is some kind of heroine because writers arent't."
While she knows that her fame as a novelist could give her a forum to speak on political subjects, she also knows that South Africans who take political action are the ones who run great risks. Looking at the interviewer, she says: "This is what they hate. When I sit here taking to a reporter like you."
While Gordimer is not an activist, some of her characters are. The bleakness of the political dilemma is especially bewildering to Rosa Burger, who decides that nothing can be avoided. "to know and not to act is not to know," is the epigraph to one section of the book.
Beyond the brief censorship of her novel, Gordimer does not appear worried about her freedom -- as long as she keeps her politics on paper. She cites the cases of novelist Alan Paton and playwright Athol Fugard whose passports were revoked and then returned after the government's actions brought a storm of international criticism. "They [the government] think it's not worth it," she explains, and then smiles, "In any case, that's what I bank on."
Gordimer says there is currently one writer in prison, the Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach, who sought to organize a clandestine revolutionary movement and was sentenced to 12 years. "There's a man who is in prison for having changed over from words to action," she says, noting that Breytenbach made the choice Jean-Paul Sartre has always urged on writers but never had to face himself.
Gordimer, who published her first story when she was 15, says her parents were not at all political. She describes herself as having been a very idle girl. "When you're young, you always think that real life is elsewhere."
Her husband is the director of the Johannesburg branch of Sotheby Park Bernet, and they live in one of the white suburbs she describes as "the most agreeable and beautiful imaginable to live in." Her son is a student at Columbia University in New York, and her daughter is married and lives in the south of France.
Recently, when Gordimer's publisher asked her to put together a selection from her five books of short stories, she reread 20 years of work for the first time.The changes in South Africa are reflected in her stories. "From the use of language I could see that history was working on me," she says.
One change was in her treatment of black characters. The kind of blacks who appear in her early stories reflect the master-slave relationship. "I wasn't able to deal with blacks who hit back," she says. "I had been so conditioned by my childhood -- like that little boy on the farm in the Free State."