A colleague said that the first place to go in South Africa was the station in Johannesburg where black workers come off the trains from Soweto. So I asked a white cabdriver to take me there.

He took me to the big Park train station, which is what I wanted. But when I asked about Soweto, he pulled to the front and pointed. "There," he said, and I went off in that direction. There was not a black person in sight.

Instead, at around 7:30 in the morning, train after train disgorged nothing but white people. They were the office workers of Johannesburg and they hurried, as workers always do, to their waiting buses or the walk to the office. There were thousands of them -- a scattering of Asians, a few of what are called "Coloreds," but no blacks.

I walked the length of the mammoth stationand then back again. I checked the board, looking for arrivals from Soweto, thinking that maybe no train from there had yet arrived. But I could find none. Then, looking down an alley at the back of the station, I saw black people coming from somewhere. I went off in that direction.

You must pardon my naivete. When I was a child in the early 1950s, my father had taken my sister and me to Washington, and I recall signs at motels along the way saying "Whites Only." But I was unprepared for a whole train station in which one half was for whites and the other for blacks, the two connected in such a fashion that one race cannot even see the other.

In the black train station, I found the trains that come in from Soweto. They arrive on tracks 9 and 10, but it did not matter where in particular they were coming from. All the trains were coming from black areas -- the places around Johannesburg where blacks can legally live. They all contained nothing but blacks.

There are commuter trains in the United States that are totally white -- or almost so. And there are other trains -- inner-city subways, for instance -- that are mostly black. But the train station in Johannesburg is something different. It is representative of a system of segregation so total, so complete, so pervasive that you have what amounts to two different nations.

This gulf between white and black, between a minority of South Africans and all the rest, explains why while the rest of the world sees television pictures of violence in a distant place called South Africa, that place -- and that violence -- seems just as distant here. The killings, more than 650 of them by now, have occurred in black South Africa, which -- aside from areas such as Cape Town, where racially different neighborhoods are close to one another -- is a place "out there." A white cabdriver cannot even tell you which train takes you there.

The media only add to the impression that the nation is like the train divided by race and twined only by geography. For instance, the Washington correspondent of the Afrikaans newspaper, Beeld, wrote tongue-in- cheek that only after returning to America from a vacation here did he realize the extent of the upheaval in his native land.

It's easy to see what he means. The other night, the television news mentioned only in passing that there had been violence at a demonstration in Cape Town -- but showed no film of the violence. It also failed to report that some of the demonstrators were kids who had sung "We Are The World." It turns out there are at least two kinds of famine in Africa.

My colleague was right. The train station turns out to be an apt metaphor for a system of racial segregation constructed out of fear and privilege -- a place where a racially segregated nation arrives racially segregated for work. But if the train station itself is a metaphor, then the music played over its sound system is a comentary on everything the eye takes in.

The first music I heard was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's "Messiah." But instantly, the music went from unseasonable to symbolic, presenting the ultimate choice for this country. First came "Dixie" and then "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." None of the commuters seemed to notice either tune.