FOR OVER A decade I have been working in South Africa, and even now I find it painful to distill what I think I know into words -- not only the frustrations, the inadequacies, the melancholy, the outrage such a country inspires in visitors, but the feelings I sense in its own people, as I hear them (to use Alan Paton's chosen verb) cry, and cry and cry. An Afrikaner, a teacher who has broken with his fellow Afrikaners, with his own family even, on the question of apartheid, puts it this way: "There are no tears left, only the saddest feeling imaginable in the gut, an emptiness that means all hope is gone." It might be best to begin with the Afrikaners, with their children.

Consider Petrus, a rather charming Afrikaner lad whose father is a high school principal in a small town of the Orange Free State in the interior of South Africa. When I first met Petrus he was only 7. He is now, at this writing, in college. When I first met him, he had all he could do to keep quiet during the long Dutch Reformed Church services his family attended every Sunday. Now he goes to church eagerly on his own. For a while he thought of being a minister -- and a professional soccer player as well! Now he is "headed" toward the law. For a while he was a fractious child, hence subjected to his father's tough disciplinary action, including the use of the belt to the boy's rear. Now he stands ramrod straight, is polite without being obsequious, outgoing without being an overtalkative hustler. He is, really, a notably courteous person, ready always to make a visitor feel at home, anxious to help him or her get to see a countryside he knows well enough to appreciate. For a while, too, he made all sorts of nasty, spiteful remarks about colored and black people. Now he is reticent on that score, and, like his father and mother, acts thoroughly formal with their servants, and with others black or colored.

Here are some remarks of Petrus' when he was 12, upon the occasion of the third anniversary of the Soweto riots. He, by then 18, still stood by them in our most recent talk: "The children there, they are being used. Why should boys and girls go and fight the police? That is not natural. There is a lot of trouble with our black people. They are tribes, and they fight their tribal wars . . .

"We don't know how to keep the blacks from fighting each other. They're very bad in their neighborhoods; they steal a lot, and they cut one another up. My uncle is a doctor and he saw terrible things when he worked in a hospital, when he was in training. He said that if a white man did to the blacks and the colored what they do to each other -- we'd all want him jailed. He has taken pictures, but my father says the press in America wouldn't publish them. We get a bad break all over the world."

Then Petrus told me (not the first white South African child to do so) how "outnumbered" the white people are in his country, and what such a state of affairs means, in both the short and the long run. I recall the moment when I asked him how many black people lived in South Africa, and how many whites. This boy, usually so precise about what he knew or didn't know, told me without so much as a moment's hesitation, with no hint that he might be a little in error, that there were about 100 blacks to every white, "maybe more." I asked him what the population of his country was. He said "about 25 million." I asked him how many whites there were. He said, "About 2 million." (There are 5 million.) I asked him how many blacks there were, and colored people. He said "All the rest," and then added:

"They cross our borders all the time. There are millions of them in those countries to our north. They are starving, and they envy us our country. They want to take away what we've got here."

I suggest he draw something for me about his country and its people. (Such representations have told me, rather quietly, what particular children have to say about their political life.) Petrus worked with paints, and proceeded efficiently with his project. Soon I began to see that Petrus had a fairly comprehensive agenda in mind -- and, eventually, I found myself thinking of Gauguin's monumental Tahiti triptych (1897): "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" The boy wanted to show me, pictorially, a history he had learned of his people -- his version, perhaps, of the Vortrekker monument in Pretoria, a massive memorial to the Afrikaner experiences that culminated in modern 20th century South Africa. For Petrus Afrikaner history began with European trade, English and Dutch ships lusting after Asia's riches. Eventually the English turned on the Dutch settlers, hence the "War Between the Whites," as he called it. (He did not call it the Boer War!) He made sure I knew -- and how many times Afrikaner children have told this to me -- about the British "concentration camps," which he painted with detail and a strange if grim magnificence, as if to remind me of a people's suffering, a people's endurance, a people's rise from slavery.

After his concentration camp, he offers the viewer the productive power, the visual majesty of the veld -- a boy's valiant attempt to evoke what is so very attractive, stunningly so in places, about his nation's countryside. He explained this part of his painting in strong, even haunting, sentences, some of them, I would later learn, first heard in Sunday school and remembered well: "We came here, and there was the bush, with wild grass growing. My father says the hills must have wondered who these strange people were! But we showed the hills. God had the sun smile on us. God told the skies to give us the water we needed. God asked the land to be kind to us; it took our seeds and gave us back our crops. We worked all the time, no vacations, only Sunday to pray to God. This is our country of South Africa -- where its heart beats. We love our fatherland; and we'll fight for it, and we'll die for it . . . "It is our people, the Afrikaner people, who will defend the country. The English, many of them, would flee. Not us. We want to keep all this the way it is. If we don't stand tough, South Africa will become a desert. You want to know what? (I nod.) I'll tell you: these tribes -- if we left, we the white people -- they'd plunder everything, and then they'd leave. They wouldn't even stay here. There'd be no South Africa, after a few years. They'd retreat into their Africa, where the jungle is."

NEAR SOWETO, which stands for Southwest Township, a place without any real name, simply one that spells out a geographic relationship to Johannesburg, a place where more than a million black people live, two black boys, Vincent Flamini ("eat at night"), who is 13, and Selwyn Ndlovu ("elephant"), who is 12, draw pictures in the dry, dusty earth with sticks and spell out their military knowledge to me: "You see, this is us," says Vincent. "And this is where their soldiers are," says Selwyn. "And you understand, they are on a 24-hour alert, 'round the clock, every day -- on account of us," Vincent explains. "With plenty of planes and tanks, and more, if they need them," Selwyn adds, whereupon he kicks the diagram he and his friend have made, so that a cloud of dust rises toward us. "We'd be hit badly," Vincent tells me. "We'd be killed, a lot of us," Selwyn announces. "They fired away at our brothers a few years ago," Vincent reminds his friend. "They killed a lot more people than they admitted killing," Selwyn lets me know, a downcast look now on his face, and bitterness in his voice. "They have tremendous power, we know that, our leaders always warn us of that," Selwyn continues -- then is interrupted by Vincent: "But there are more of us, many more, and we'll get guns, more and more guns, and we'll beat them, one day, we'll beat them at their own game."

In case I have any question what that game is, Vincent gives the military details slowly and methodically, staring without interruption right into my eyes, his own eyes not blinking, I notice. My eyes, finally, blink and then lift to the far-off view (we were standing on a hill), which affords a glimpse of row after row of cinder-box houses, and no trees, and no paved roads, and no grass, and no electricity. Outhouses and a permanent layer of smoke, the result of open coal pits used to cook food, and spaces here and there where a lonely spigot serves water to hundreds, to thousands. A market, maybe, with lots of fat and flour, and those shebeens, all those shebeens, open in the morning and open in the afternoon, and even open all night, the beer, the wine, the hard liquor, the men and the women, the sex, the frustrations and outbursts of tears, and the fits of rage, the tempers lost, the knives, the flesh cut, the bleeding, the deaths, every night the deaths, violent deaths, accidental deaths, illnesses gone untreated claiming lives. All this is the everyday experience, knowledge, inheritance of these two boys, of thousands like them, and their sisters: Soweto, a name known the world over.

Then this, from Vincent: "We'd never be like them; we'd never kill like they did, in front of the (Regina Mundi Roman Catholic) cathedral. We'd never watch over them all the time, and tell them they're dirty pigs and dumb oxen and filthy, filthy and monkeys and apes, all they call us. We'd try to be like what the sisters (who run the Holy Cross School, in Diepsay we should be like. 'Charity,' they tell us to have 'charity,' like Jesus had, and they say he suffered bad, real bad, and if he had the same deal we have, then he was one big chap -- a dude, you people say in the States."

No more words; smiles now from the two boys, and I relax a little. We walk along, headed back to school. We've had a long break, and the warning bell tells us to hurry. The boys have a study period, though, rather than a class, and they seem less anxious to respond to the demands of their school schedule than I am for them to do so. They see me for what I am, an old man by the standards of Soweto (where so many children die days or weeks after birth, and most people die well before they have accumulated my 50 years), and still a conscientious student, anxious to pay the teachers heed, so that my future will be bright. Vincent suggests we slow down, meaning me. Selwyn explains that even these beloved Irish missionary nuns are not free, they who mean so well and are so good, and who are sent here by God, and who do their work in a country run by people who claim to be God-fearing above all else -- God-fearing and afraid of no one else, no one, nothing, not a single other country, even the "big two": even those nuns are watched, curbed, told what to teach, what not to teach, and so Doc, take it easy, let's talk, we'll get there soon enough, and if we don't -- well, are you interted in our lives, our assumptions, ideas, expectations, or in living out reflexively your own obedient, academic life, yet again, here in this Godforsaken part of our planet?

The two young men (they are that, fully grown in important respects, I have decided by now) sit down on the dry, cracked earth of the path.

"The nuns tell us about democracy. The United States is a democracy. 'Is South Africa a democracy?' we asked the nun in class. She got red in the face. If she'd been black, like us, she could have hid her shame -- no one sees us get red in the face! She didn't know what to say to us. She stuttered. The only other time she stuttered was once when we asked her what she'd do, if her government treated her the way our government treats us. Then, she told us God knows there is plenty of trouble in the world, and there are lots of people who don't get treated fairly; but he'll take care of us, someday -- when we meet him. That means, when we're dead and gone. Too late for us! And great news for the government of South Africa! No wonder the men in the government love their religion, and always are telling us they're good Christians! You ask me -- if you did -- I'd say that South Africa is a democracy, like you hear the people say on the radio, a democracy for the Boers. For us it's being ordered around every step we take; it's like Russia. One of our Soweto leaders keeps asking why America is supporting a Russian kind of government here, if your country hates dictator-governments. That's what we don't understand."

They saw my embarrassment: silence. Selwyn started teasing me -- asked me if I'd thought of asking questions of various South African government officials. I retreated into professional avowals -- that I'm a child psychiatrist, and I'm trying to figure out what children think about their country, its values and ideals. Selwyn was too smart and observant to let my self- protective pieties stand unchallenged: "Well, you've talked to our parents. Why don't you talk with the children of our prime minister, and then talk with him and his wife?"

I laugh, and say I would, gladly, but doubt very much he'd be interested. Anyway, access to the prime minister is not something available to me. They smile, but are not ready to stop this line of inquiry. How about trying to talk with others "lower down." I ask whom they had in mind. They don't know any names, only that there are functionaries and functionaries, thousands of them, and one level and another level and it goes on and on -- don't I know? Haven't I learned this important fact about South Africa, that at every turn there are "people checking you out," then "people checking out the ones who check you out," and then "people checking them out" -- until, as Selwyn put it, "you begin to check yourself out, because you see people checking you out in the shadows, and then you get nearer, and there's no one there, and it's not your eyes, man, not your eyes; it's what has happened to you: you've become part of their system, because they've got into your head in a bad way, and there's nothing you can do but go to the shebeen and start with the beer, and fily the beer will wash everything away."

THE LONGER I have come to know South Africa's children, those who are white and those who are colored and those who are black (I did not work with Indian families), the more I have come to understand how important racial nationalism is for all of them. When intense fear gets connected to nationalist preoccupations or aspirations, as has happened to all South African boys and girls, a striking intensity of emotion results. White boys and girls (of, say, 9 or 10) announce that the Fatherland would be "raped" if there were not constant "police action." One asks what that "action" entails, and hears that "they" are always trying to "destroy the country," or "ruin our nation," or "make our Fatherland weak." One asks how "they" are trying to do so, and hears that it is by "breaking the laws of South Africa." One asks which laws, and hears that they are the apartheid laws. Even some white children of "liberal" or "progressive" parents, who are disgusted by apartheid (alas, they seem to be a relatively small minority of the white people), even those boys and girls can be heard worrying out loud about the "vandals" in Soweto, who "throw rocks," and "could start a revolution." When one asks a 10- child of this background how many people live in Soweto, and how he or she has learned about the vandals, one is told that "there are millions there, I don't know how many millions," or one is told "lots and lots, because it's crowded, real packed -- maybe 3 or 4 or 5 million"; and one hears that "the papers" and "the TV" and "the radio" have conveyed "news" about the constant "killing there" and "the children who will throw rocks or use knives on you." Who is "you"? Well, in fact, "you" is "us"; "you" turns out to be "white people."

But do any white people go to Soweto? Here the child is likely to say "no" -- and rather correctly. It is against the law, in fact, one keeps reminding oneself, for any white person, save those expressly authorized by the government, so much as to step foot in Soweto. All right, then -- when are rocks hurled at whites, if they aren't allowed to enter Soweto? Some children reply that they don't know the answer. Others figure out that the white police or army may have en thereafter been assaulted. But two- thirds of the children offer quite another and I believe instructive explanation -- as in this reply by a white Johannesburg child of 11, a girl of English background, her father a lawyer, her mother a landscape architect: "They spill over; they get all excited, and they just start their marching, and the next thing you know, our police have to take notice. You know, there's a limit; you can't let people turn the country into a jungle. You have to have laws -- I mean, keep people under control. Otherwise, South Africa would be engulfed. My daddy says that's the danger we face in our country, that it will be engulfed, and there won't be any country left once it happens."

For me, this is a child of "enlightened background." I share with her parents talk of books, ideas, events. We commiserate -- this tragedy, that impasse: in South Africa, in Europe, in the United States. We read similar periodicals, admire the same writers. Still, their child carries a terrible fear that her country may soon fall apart -- and a grossly exaggerated notion of how many blacks live in Soweto, and Lord knows, what they are doing of a violent or revolutionary way with respect to the nation in whose territory they live and work, though not as recognized members, not as citizens.

Meanwhile, other children her age, colored or black, dream of being welcomed, finally, into this nation, dream of enjoying its quite obvious, tangible, attractive charms, wares, offerings. Those boys and girls call themselves South Africans, think of themselves as South Africans, even dream of themselves as South Africans, no matter what a particular government says and does and announces it will do. As Vincent once said to me: "I woke up last night; it was early in the morning, still dark, but a little light was just coming up. I was shaking, because I had a bad dream. The police were there, in my room, telling us we all had to leave our country and go someplace else. They wouldn't tell us where, though. My mother begged, and finally they did -- to Robben Island (where political prisoners are kept, off the coast of Cape Town). Then, my mother was a little relieved -- at least we weren't going to some foreign country."

Our country, someplace else, some foreign country -- these are the phrases of a child who knows exactly which country is his, a child whose race (however despised by those of a different race) has not in his mind disqualified him from an attachment to a place, a spot on this earth, a given nation-state. What his government denies him he nevertheless grants himself. He is officially stateless, yet he is emotionally bound to the land he knows -- tied to it in his daily life, and in his dreams at night. No laws in the world can change such attachments, such dreams. A million new rules and a million edicts, and a million pronouncements from the legislature in Cape Town, from the halls of the majestic government buildings high on the Pretoria hills, from the Bloemfontein court chambers -- none of them will alter the tenacious psychology of children, for whom a nightmare can in fact be a moral statement (of what ought be), and a cognitive statement (of what actually is).

In Vincent's words: "We're here, and we've been here, and no matter how often they shuffle us, and send us back and forth, we're still here, and they know it, because they're here, too." "Here" is South Africa, rent and embattled to be sure -- but its children's indivisible nation.