RAGE By Wilbur Smith, Little, Brown. 627 pp. $19.95

There is plenty to cry for in the beloved, angry, bullheaded, violent country of South Africa.

Let's see. The black majority cannot vote, may not own property, lives largely in poverty, dreams of freedom and hates the whites.

The English-descended whites have formed a commercial and financial elite for centuries, but no longer influence the government much, let alone control it, and are left with a fading memory of union with Britain. Today some of them represent the truly lost tribe of South Africa, the white liberals -- racially moderate, and politically sidelined.

At the controls in Pretoria are the Nationalists, party of the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, dressed in seamless self-certainty and rectitude, and preserving South Africa for God and Calvin. They aren't fond of either blacks or Englishmen. The feeling is mutual.

Along with ancient tribal rivalries and modern power relationships among the black opposition, South Africa arguably is not a nation at all but a bloodstained pot of seething, conflicting passions that ought to make a compelling novel.

Instead, South African-born Wilbur Smith has written "Rage," a sort of "Thorn Birds" saga of the country's endless black-white-white struggle that weaves together love, lust, power, money, politics and a fabulously rich, English-descended Cape Town family's dirty linen over three generations. Even more so than "Thorn Birds," though, it has TV mini-series written all over it -- cartoons for characters, a superficial glaze of social significance and a plot that would make a screen writer blush.

Shasa Courtney is incredibly rich and "almost impossibly handsome," the head of the Courtney diamond-mining empire and a member of the opposition party in Parliament. His wife Tara, who is incredibly rich and has magnificent breasts, dabbles in the white, liberal, antiapartheid organization Black Sash. Shasa tolerates this annoying flirtation with political activism; he's busy with his own flirtations, bedding women at will.

Unknown to Shasa, Tara becomes busy bedding Moses Gama, a leader of the underground African National Congress who is bent on the violent overthrow of the white regime. There is conflict when Tara learns that Moses plans to advance the revolution by bombing Parliament, incinerating her husband and her father, an opposition party elder. There is more conflict when Shasa forsakes his British Empire principles and crosses over to the Nationalists for the sake of a cabinet position. Shasa does not know that the Afrikaner politician who persuades him to take this step, Manfred de la Rey, is his bastard half-brother.

There is considerable conflict for the reader when he discovers this book is 627 pages long.

Wilbur Smith is the author of numerous popular novels that have sold well in the United Kingdom, which is curious, given the shortcomings of "Rage." There are many too many grating cliche's and stereotypes. Tara Courtney and Moses Gama's Zulu wife Victoria are love slaves. In Gama's embrace, unfortunately, Tara's "bones went soft with desire and her loins melted like wax." Gama is a ruthless, ambitious black leader of such heroic proportions, physically and otherwise, that he strikes a reader first as incredible and then as funny. Tara finds that "his scrutiny seemed to set her skin on fire ... She knew Moses Gama had only to crook his finger and she would follow him, she and ten million others."

In better moments, "Rage" allows glimpses of the flavor and texture of South Africa, its people and its stunning topography. Some scenes inside the political councils of the ruling Afrikaners ring true, as do clandestine strategy sessions around a kitchen table where black nationalists, including the legendary Nelson Mandela, debate the difficult choices between peaceful dissent and violent protest.

But first comes cardboard power, ambition, greed, corruption and sex. Even the reality of South Africa must be better than this. The reviewer is an assistant foreign editor of The Washington Post.