One is supposed to come to this country with a fixed and hostile idea -- a revulsion against apartheid -- and then to find one's certainty slowly undermined by the vaunted "complexity" of the place. For me it has worked the other way around.

I was no friend of South African racial policies before I came, but intellectually I was comfortable with the argument that this was a volatile, infinitely complicated society whose reformation must be special, partial, slow. I have not become a bomb-thrower in my 12 days here -- though if any place could make me one, this is probably it. But to spend time in South Africa is to confront the fundamental monstrosity of the system, its daily degradation and bit-by-bit destruction not only of its millions of black and "colored" victims, but also of the Afrikaner culture imposing it. Herewith the contents of my notebook -- the sights and sounds and thoughts a first-time traveler records.

I. THE SYSTEM

The argument is that the apartheid system, whatever its inequities, is for the present, anyway, a safeguard against the violence, anarchy and social and economic catastrophe just waiting to happen here. From which it follows that this system may be disassembled only very gradually and as the possibility of a healthier social order is developed to take its place. But this is an inversion of the truth. The apartheid system is not a temporary solution. It is the problem. It is not a defense against danger. It is a source and endless inflamer of the danger.

Many racial laws, it is true, predate the present Afrikaner Nationalist rule. And God knows it is also true that in the newly independent states of Africa blacks are persecuting other blacks, and there is not exactly what you would call a flowering of civil liberties. But neither in that white-ruled past nor in the black African countries' present does one find anything comparable to the Afrikaner- imposed system which, in astonishing detail, regulates, exploits and deforms the lives of some 21 million blacks as individuals, as families and as a people.

The system has worked to make millions of these people less, not more, suited to life in that better social order for which the country is supposed to be waiting, and it has also suppressed their every effort at peaceful, normal political change. Now its defenders sigh over the ignorance and simplicity of people to whom they have refused citizenship, decent schooling, a shot at good jobs or even freedom to try for a better life, and say that the very agent of this situation must be left in place until things get better. It is Orwellian. I am not crazy about that overworked epithet, but it is surely applicable here, on at least two counts.

One is this abuse of language and meaning. "Homelands" and "independence" for blacks mean enforced relocation of thousands of people to settlements with toilets and tents and no more, and loss of South African citizenship for all. "Influx Control," "The Orderly Movement and Settlement of Black Persons Bill," "The Prohibition of Improper Interference Act," "The Ministry of Cooperation and Development" -- these are among the proposed and established instruments whose main object is to keep South Africa's blacks available for labor where it is needed, out of jobs that whites would prefer, out of the country's political life and out of town by bedtime.

The result has been horrendous hardship. All blacks must have passbooks to justify being in the area where they are and must get permission to go somewhere else even briefly. Thousands of families are broken up when the husband alone is permitted to be in the city or the vicinity of the mines where the jobs are, while the rest of the family must live in a "homeland" or resettlement camp hundreds of miles away. The desperate violation of to the ai these restrictions keeps the inspectors and the pass courts busy.

It is not just the names for all this that put one in mind of Orwell's vision. It is also the near-to-insane detail of it and the effort at legally formalizing state control over every aspect of the individual's life. There is, in fact, something gruesomely comic in the government's queer, clerkish preoccupation with creating a legal and even moral justification for what is at bottom a purely power-based repression of one people by another.

II. PASS COURT

There has been a police sweep in Capetown where we are staying, hundreds of arrests of blacks who have come to the city without permission. There were repeated 4 a.m. forays into the ramshackle Crossroads squatters' camp where tens of thousands of blacks live, five or so to a room in huts made of corrugated tin strips and old wooden boxes. It will be a big day in pass court. We go.

Before the proceeding gets started, the magistrates receive us in a sunny, pleasant room that looks out onto a barbed-wire- topped stucco wall. It is "ironic," one tells us, that this very station was blown up not long ago and had to be rebuilt, ironic because this, after all, "is the place where we assist these people." Assist them? Yes. The prosecution interviews the defendants in private and advises them how to plead. Most of the defendants are from the Transkei and Ciskei "homelands" and have violated the Influx Control regulations, coming here to seek jobs or be with friends and family or for some other reason.

We are invited to ask questions. We do have a few. Doesn't it seem unfair to punish a man or woman for coming to a place to seek work, especially when there is known to be starvation in the places where they have been consigned to live? No, in fact it is "immoral" for these unauthorized people to come here seeking jobs, as they will probably take them from other blacks who live here legally. The breaking of pass laws for family reasons is "immoral" as well. How so? "Well, from the viewpoint of the woman, I really cannot see the justification for her getting on a bus with her little children and leaving the older ones behind with someone and coming to Capetown just to see her husband. Why isn't it immoral for the husband to be here so long and not go home? Must we solve the problem for them of a broken family?"

It is time to get the proceedings under way. The hearing room is modest: a few benches and a little dock into which the defendant walks when his or her name is hollered out by a black clerk; next to the dock stands the prosecutor, another black, who interrogates the defendant in a tribal tongue and relays what is said to our friend the magistrate, now sitting enrobed on a raised platform.

Most of the defendants are women in their 20s. Some are second offenders, such as a young woman who says, "I have come to Capetown to get my child, your Worship. I left her in Somerset West (a place nearby) because she was sick." Much discussion ensues of the child's record of hospitalization, her present whereabouts and the date that she was released from hospital. "Well," says the magistrate, "you came for a valid purpose to Capetown, but you should have left immediately you got the child. You were convicted previously, so you're a second offender. Thirty rand or 30 days."

The cases roll on at about two minutes per proceeding. The fines go up to 60 rand or 60 days (a rand is little less than a dollar, an enormous amount for these people). One young woman is let off because she has at least a disputable claim to having been mislabeled: She says she is colored, not wholly black -- a distinction the government makes -- and so shouldn't have to have a passbook. Another is represented by a lawyer and attended by a white woman whose maid she is and who is trying to get her off. A young man comes to the dock. "I'm guilty," he says when asked how he pleads. Why had he come to Capetown?

"I've come to see my father."

"For what purpose?' to the ai'.

III. ONE SOLDIER

I always suspected, and now I know, that God did not intend me for a war correspondent. On the Beechcraft plane we have chartered to fly up to the Namibian war zone by the Angolan border, we are asked if we wish to fly at tree-top level or climb to 15,000 feet -- to avoid being hit by one of the SAM-7 missiles that are said to abound on this stretch of our journey. There is no option to get off and go home. I vote for going to 15,000 feet.

We really don't acquire much insight into the war, but one soldier we meet does engage my interest. He is the hearty South African commandant of the Bushman's camp where we stop. This is an extraordinary installation where the South African Defense Force is training, sheltering, schooling and fighting alongside soldiers of two tribes of these primitive, late Stone-Age people. The South African government is not loathe to capitalize on tribal animosities, and it has found a real winner in this one. "Now your average Bushman," the commandant says with robust satisfaction, "he is a real racist." The Bushman hates the Ovambo and wants to kill every one he sees. SWAPO is preponderantly an Ovambo-tribe outfit. You get the idea.

I find myself deciding I like the commandant. I am ashamed of myself. What is it about this improbable figure, the very image of a 19th century colonial officer, striding around the Bushman camp, patting the Bushman kids on the head, serving us a lunch of sausages, sardines and mutton chops -- what can it be about him I like?

True, he is condescending in some ways about these soldiers and tenants of his. But he also has a kind of matey affection for them and evident respect. He tells us awe-struck stories of their courage and fidelity in combat. He also tells us funny stories of their maiden encounters with a world of technology we take for granted. The commandant took a group of Bushmen to a fancy hotel in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. But he could not for the life of him get them to go into an elevator, which they had been studying intently while he was elsewhere in the lobby. What they had seen -- and who could say them nay? -- was this: A giant box whose doors mysteriously parted; a man would walk inside; the doors would close, and when they opened again a few minutes later, the man would walk out having been turned into two women.

I began to understand what was so refreshing about the commandant.

For my whole time so far in South Africa I had been veering back and forth between two cultures that are unwilling to see the African in all his variegated incarnations as he is. One was my own: anxious, eye-darting liberalism, panicked at the mere mention, for instance, of tribes, feeling in the very word a put-down -- this even though tribal origin is a basic unit of ethnic, regional and political calculation here that is as relevant and as neutral in nature as saying what a person's regional, racial or religious identification is in the United States. The other was that of the more mean- minded South African whites. For days some of these had been pounding a gleeful message into our ears: "These people aren't ready and never will be. They practice witchcraft. They are dumb. Look at the mess black Africa is in. Why are you asking us to take such people in?" It is a historically lobotomized argument made by people with a stake in promoting the failures they so unconvincingly groan about.

For both of these cultures, mine and theirs, the Bushman presents a litmus test we fail. I am afraid even to speak of the Bushman, though he is an anomaly in black Africa of the 20th century as he would be anywhere else, because I fear someone will think that is a comment on all Africans. The mean- minded Afrikaner, far from fearing this misunderstanding, cultivates it. He takes the Bushman, in all his uniqueness and says, "This is your basic African. This is what we're up against."

And now here comes the commandant. He does not seem to suppose that characterizing these Bush people as primitive is to characterize them as stupid or subhuman or lacking in virtue. Nor does he mix them up with other Africans. There seems to repose in him a sane, eye-contact respect for the African that enables him instinctively to see these people human and whole, to assume enough good not to fear to see the eccenricities and the humor in their ways. I wonder how many more like him there are.

IV. AFRIKANERS

Moving around among these self-absorbed people, the Afrikaners, I find myself exposed to a compulsion toward endless examination and rationalization of "the problem" and to what seems a round-the-clock quest for reassurance, understanding, the good opinion of a traveling stranger. Sardonic cracks begin each encounter: "Well, now that you've been here a week, I suppose you're an expert." Next comes the optimistic question/assertion. Surely I have discovered the inordinate "complexity" of the problem by now? Surely I have realized that they are doing things, taking certain steps?

But something within me almost immediately after I get here digs in, begins stubbornly to withhold the sought-after reassurance. Increasingly I am struck by the fact that this is a system built over a vast act of brutality and that one does these people no particular favor by pretending otherwise, by reinforcing their evasion.

A few years ago, an Afrikaner journalist called "Wimpie" de Klerk made a distinction between two basic kinds of Afrikaner that has long since reached the exalted status of cliche. The verligtes were the enlightened ones, the verkramptes the cramped, pinched, stingy who could learn or give little.

There is something to it. Large distinctions do exist between many of the socially active, troubled, ameliorist Afrikaner businessmen and intellectuals -- those designated verligtes (from "light") -- and the entrenched, reactionary bureaucrats, fundamentalists and others who make up the ranks of the verkramptes (from "cramped.") Many of the former are doing good work and urging a lessening of certain restrictions and are making sizable investments in material betterment for portions of the country's black population. Yet I couldn't help feeling, every day more sharply, that the key piece was missing. For they and their church and secular leaders seemed unable to repudiate, to let go of, apartheid's central premise. Until they do their argument will lack credibility and force.

In a way, verligteid, as the condition of enlightenment is called, for all its undeniable value, may even be seen as the final self-delusion, the ultimate dodge. It enables otherwise sensitive people to walk around the perimeter of the daily horror, to busy themselves remedying certain ill-effects of the system while countenancing, if not simply ignoring, the police-enforced brutality and systematic repression going on in their midst -- and in their name -- every hour.

It is here that one runs head-on into the question: What would you do? My answer is that the Afrikaners who are pressing for reform of the system urgently need to take this larger saving step. They must acknowledge to themselves, their subject populations and the world that their purpose is to dismantle the apartheid system, not simply to make it more sustainable. Only when this commitment is made will there be even a hope, for the long term, of saving themselves and their culture from disaster.

I find a handful of articulate, courageous members of the Afrikaner establishment who believe this, too, and who say it. At the University of Stellenbosch and in some other traditional seats of Afrikaner learning, there are more than stirrings: Powerful, cogent condemnation in the name of Afrikaner thought and culture is increasingly heard. Others who also could in no way be desribed as radical are taking an equally radical line in the strife-torn Dutch Reformed Church.

No one argues that tomorrow afternoon, with the wave of a wand, racial peace, order and equality can be brought to South Africa. No one honest even argues to the ai that conciliation can save the Afrikaner people or the country as a whole from a descent into chaos. The argument is that the effort must be made and that the engine of this must be the society's recognition of the truth of its situation and of the huge crime that despoils its history. The practical exertions of the verligte businessmen and others are really implementing actions, good faith works of fulfillment -- but fulfillment of what? To date they have been a means without an end.

V. OPPOSITION

Nothing I had read about her in the press had prepared me for Helen Suzman. Somehow she had come across to me as one of those heavy-going, right-minded personnages who cost their causes personally at least twice as much as they gain for them politically. How wrong I was. Graceful, funny, wholly without pretension, incapable of being deflected from her battle for the victims of the system, she is a woman who seems to view her antagonists with precisely the right proportions of amusement, pity and rage.

Tonight we are having dinner at her house in the Houghton suburb of Johannesburg, which she represents in parliament. We find the black leaders Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr. Nthato Motlana among the guests. We also find that in one respect this house is no different from any other in Johannesburg: The talk is of the inevitable, obsessive subject. There are, of course, no shadings of commitment here. But there is strenuous dispute over tactics. This I am to find a debilitating preoccupation of the system's opponents.

The Afrikaners may need to break apart for their own salvation, but their antagonistssneed as urgently to come together, and this is unimaginably hard. Different groups -- black, colored, Indian (to use the distinctions the government imposes), white, mostly British-descended or Jewish South Africans -- have different interests, and there are groups within these groups. The government has created a structure that encourage competition among them, making it advantageous, for example, for the colored to distance themselves from the blacks.

When I ask my new British South African friends June and Tony, for instance, why there is so little overt peaceful protest of the civil disobedience kind, they cite two reasons. One has to do with this distance -- social, racial, cultural -- between people on the same side. June recall how, in the years shortly after the "Nats" took over, she and some others took to violating segregated public transport and other facilities and how this seemed to frighten some of the blacks they sat with on the buses. It put them at risk and without their consent. They didn't know what it required of them. It was ungainly. It didn't work.

But this is the lesser of her reasons in that it is the one she thinks could have been overcome. Not just from June, but again and again on my visit when I remark how eerie it is that so many people, angry or not, just seem to walk through the doors and abide in the places they are directed to, I am told that peaceful resistance was murdered at Sharpeville when protestors marching toward buildings to turn themselves in for refusing to carry their passes were slaughtered, dozens of them, by government guns. And the laws, ever after, have gotten tighter.

"You know, during the Vietnam war," June says, "another American, this young man, came over here and told us that we needed him, that he would shows us how to demonstarate and protest like the students were in American. He said we all should do this. I thought, I wonder if he knows what it's like to demonstrate and protest when you can be arrested without any recourse to law or when you can be put away for the rest of your life. I wondered if he knew what he was asking us to do." I cease harping on peaceful resistance after that.

What are the alternatives, then? Basically the strain is between those who believe that somewhere within or at the edges of the system progress and pressure can be generated and those, evidently increasing numbers of yogues to the aiung, who are talking armed guerrilla actions, urban terrorism and loyalty to the African National Congress (ANC), the banned organization with forces operating out of Mozambique and elsewhere to the north. The ANC has supporters who are not violent or bloodthirsty, and supporters who are. Its history is that of an organization pushed relentlessly by the government toward its present stand. Blacks and colored people who are working a wholly different kind of opposition express, with great feeling, their sympathy for it. It may have much Soviet support, but the South African government is its best recruiter.

Within the area of open, public action left to these people (public association with the ANC is an offense, and helping it has lately been found treasonable by a court) there is sharp dispute between the so-called system- blacks, like Chief Buthelezi, and those like Nthato Motlana, who believe that to cooperate even in the limited way Buthelezi does while he also opposes and thwarts the system is treasonable to blacks.

These are lonely people. The stakes are enormous, and there is no certainty or comfort anywhere for them, only a continuing calculation of risks and moral priorities, all of which bear huge dangers if you choose wrong. What will this government wreak upon their people if the leaders urge them too far or urge them beyond the leader's own capacity to control them? What connection do these urbane, educated men and women have with the more primitive rural masses of blacks? What horrific tribal wars of competition for spoils and retribution for old grievances could be unleashed in a general uprising? And what about the children -- the young Soweto blacks in particular, who are said by almost all to have become estranged, surly, unresponsive even to the increasingly militant rhetoric of their middle-class elders?

Perhaps, it is argued, the black labor unions will become the arena for racial change. Perhaps, like Solidarity, only with better luck, they will tend toward becoming a source of organized political action. People say it. But they also say the government is almost guaranteed to start bashing on these -- in fact that it already has -- as evidence grows that they may be the setting in which black political consciousness arranges itself for action. VI.

TWO BANNED PERSONS

1. Winnie Mandela.

My mental picture of a visit with a banned person -- such visits are permitted under circumscribed conditions, generally at the banned person's home -- proved in the event to be all wrong. I had expected hushed tones, a guarded exchange in a room only dimly lit. A moment's reflection should have told me otherwise. You don't get banned for being a hushed-tone person whose spirit it is easy to break. I am overwhelmed with an instant realization of this when I see Winnie Mandela coming toward me to shake hands.

She is a beautiful black woman of 47, strikingly dressed in a floor-length, purple and white Africa gown -- a woman of animation, with a kind of haughty, even scornful bearing.

There is little the government has not already tried by way of subduing this woman. Her husband, Nelson Mandela, a leader of the ANC, has served two full decades of a prison sentence for life. She has been in prison more times than she can count. ("How many times?" "How can I remember that?") A sophisticated, college-trained woman who over the years involved herself in medical social work, child welfare and increasingly stubborn forms of resistance to the system, she has herself also been under various banning orders off and on for nearly 20 years. Once the authorities in their infinite attention to detail even prohibited her from wearing a particular African dress that they had deemed too nationalistic and politically provocative.

Her current banning, which was decreed after the Soweto riots of 1976, when she was accused of encouraging the rioters, added a new twist: exile. She has been removed from the active urban world she thrives in to a tiny, hovel-like house, its es to the aionly water provided by a communal outdoor garden hose, in a run-down black outskirt settlement near the small farming town of Brandfort. This is in the heart of the most conservative and unsympathetic (to her) region of the country, the fundamentalist-minded Orange Free State. So she has been in effect banished to nowhere. Every Monday she must walk to the police station in the white town a couple of miles away and register. She does so faithfully and silently. She will not speak to her jailers. "We do not communicate," she says.

One has learned to be cautious over the years in characterizing the political outlook and intentions of those one doesn't know -- life is too full of deceptions and suprises. In South Africa you may hear an argument between those who claim the Mandelas are and always have been committed Marxist "terrorists" and those who claim that the past few decades have been a chronicle of the government's pressing these people toward a realization that only the violent way was open to them. I don't presume to know Winnie Mandela's history or her secrets. But I do know, have had it borne in on me everywhere in South Africa, that she and her jailed husband are heroic figures in the minds of many black leaders who are themselves far from being any kind of terrorist. The Mandelas have become culture models of a kind, and the analysis Winnie Mandela offers is especially worth hearing because it is repeated in so much of the discourse we have with blacks of other temperaments and other callings.

We have concluded this, she says simply: "The white South African would rather die than share power with a black man." The efforts at peaceful change have been met with guns. The ANC began years ago with a blueprint for racial reconciliation. It was rejected. Does that mean there must be the "bloodbath" of everyone's worst imagining? And if so, doesn't that in turn mean that the resistance can be wiped out by superior force?

This woman has an obdurate conviction. It will happen in her lifetime, she says again and again, that blacks will rule their country. "We cannot be wished away." Her husband will one day be free and he will work to "liberate" not the blacks but the Afrikaners -- "It is they who need to be liberated." She uses the term "our country," says "never" when asked if she has considered voluntary flight from South Africa.

But she still hasn't answered the question about violence, about the means to her goal. Asked once again she responds with a reference to the trauma and gore of Soweto in 1976. "We were there when they shot our children," says Winnie Mandela. "It is the men who shot our children who must speak the language of peace."

2. Beyers Naude.

Beyers Naude is the other banned person I visit. He was once a moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church, is a former pillar of the Afrikaner establishment who has fallen away on the central question of apartheid. They first banned him in 1977.

Dr. Naude makes plain that although these are the last few days before his present banning order expires and may or may not be renewed, he is doing nothing prudent, let alone anything ingratiating, to influencing the decision. On the contrary, it is a Sunday and the banned minister has gone out (he is allowed to attend church, but not to "socialize" there) and preached a sermon. Was that socializing? he wonders wryly and with evident enjoyment. Well, we shall see. Will they really stop a Christian, he asks, from preaching a Christian sermon on Sunday in a Christian country?

Dr. Naude receives a guest in a parlor filled with green plants and shelves of books, his gray-haired, 69-year-old wife sitting nearby. He regrets what his banning has done to her, so sharply limiting what they can do, where they can go. The authorities a while back ransacked their house for ANC literature. Mrs. Naude's knitting needles click away; she is attentive to our conversation but says nothing.

The authorities must detest these people above all others -- especially to the ai this man who is a renegade. He comes of diehard Afrikaner- supremacy people, was himself an agent of the Nationist government's rise to power on its apartheid policies. It is said that his gradual rejection of its racial theories came from a stunningly honest argument with himself about what he saw around him, what he believed was right and what he believed Scripture commanded. He was troubled. He began to challenge. He ran afoul of his church and government. He was punished.

Interestingly, Dr. Naude offers the same political analysis I have come to hear so often -- repression of peaceful protest, degradation of the blacks is turning the youth violent, is swelling the support of the ANC, is bringing on the very fate it is intended to prevent. He is not wildly encouraged by the prospects for true reform in the Reformed Church, nor by the pace of government actions to alter things, although he does not disparage either. He believes the process of change will take longer and be more painful than he had once thought. But of its eventual occurrence he has no doubt.

As we say goodbye in the soft air of a springlike Johannesburg evening, Beyers Naude seems more encouraged than I am. He knows he has not been, cannot be, reached by the misguided authorities. He conveys a moral sureness and, even in his disappointment, an air of hope. I think he and the Afrikaners like him are the hope.

POSTSCRIPT: When we left South Africa, the word among those who argue that the government is moving along toward racial reform and easing up on its suppression of dissent was that Dr. Naude's banning order would almost certainly not be renewed when it expired on Oct. 31. On Oct. 29, the government announced it was renewing the banning order for three more years.