People who go to South Africa tend to become obsessed. I had not expected it to happen to me when I made the visit a few years ago. For one thing, I had set out with curiosity but little excitement. In truth I felt somewhat dutiful about the trip: it would be journalistically helpful. I had always been bored and unconvinced by the rush of romantic writing out of Africa, especially that of visiting enthusiasts who talked about the primal quality of the land and the dramatic torment of its people. And having read much about the difficulty of bringing South Africa's spectacularly unjust racial arrangements to a new and better pass, I expected to be one of those who returned with an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other point of view -- "God, it's tough," I would say when people asked.

You know what's coming next. I think South Africa is the most possessing, poignant place I have ever been. I have not been able to get it out of my mind since. The country is not like the place you imagine before you get there or even like the one you imagine the first few days after you arrive. It is a stereotype destroyer. It is also a profoundly laminated place that reveals ever more interesting and surprising truths about itself as you probe. Little of this, I fear, is reflected in the current public argument over what this country's South Africa policy should be.

Start with general relationships between the races as viewed by the visitor. At first one is startled by two things: the unforeseen residue of animosity that continues to exist between the white South Africans of mainly Dutch and British descent and the equally unforeseen degree of easy racial mixing that appears to exist between blacks and whites in the big cities like Johannesburg. The latter impression, which lasts about three days, is based on the American's false assumption that urban South Africa is strictly segregated 24 hours a day. It is not. You might go to a private home where blacks and whites are guests at dinner. Some whites prove to be deeply involved in projects seeking to help black workers and to change, even dismantle, the apartheid system.

But despite its importance and value, there turns out to be a Potemkin-village aspect to all this so far as the society as a whole and its fundamental system are concerned. You will find that the black dinner-party guests must leave early to return to the distant black area where they are compelled by law to live. You will observe that large numbers of black male workers in the Johannesburg area, whose lot and skills those friendly whites are seeking to improve, are compelled to live in all-male hostels, hundreds of miles from their families who are forbidden to live with them in the city. And if you move beyond the city yourself, you will see vast, terrible camps in barren spots to which uprooted blacks have been carted on government order, sites where tens of thousands of people may be forced to live in hastily improvised tin shacks because the Pretoria authorities have summarily decided that this is where they have to be.

So you move from an impression of surprising racial closeness to one of more predictable distance and alienation and you still aren't through. For behind both you will finally perceive a third element: a strange and wholly unexpected kind of intimacy between the alien peoples themselves. I don't know how else to describe it. It is tribal. It exists between the white European (English- and Afrikaans-speaking) tribes as well as between them and all the others -- black, Asian, mixed -- and the subtribes of each.

The whites and blacks and Asians and mixed- race people of South Africa seem to know each other preternaturally well, and those who are involved in the political play on all sides seem to have known each other forever. They laugh about and curse each other with this peculiar intimacy akin to what you hear when families are coming apart. When the outsider lambastes someone's antagonist, that someone is likely to correct the analysis, even softening some edges while sharpening others.

These are combatants who share recollections and knowledge no one else has access to. And knowing each other so long and so well, each seems to know that the other is not really like the stereotype hurled around in international discourse. He may in fact be worse, but he is flesh-and-blood real. It is one of the poignant aspects of the place: South Africans, black and white, seem to move toward a terrible destiny, fully aware of each other and full of regret, but with a stoic sense that this will be. You hear it in President Botha's dug-in resistance. You hear it in Bishop Tutu's lamentations of despair at what is coming.

It is no accident, I think, that South Africa has created a rich fictional literature that has points of contact with the great writings of 19th-century Russia, early 20th-century Ireland, the post- Civil War American South and much of Latin America now. It is, like those places, an almost neurotically self-absorbed and self-aware realm, a setting in which the interplay of the private individual and the larger political and cultural force inevitably comes to dominate the imagination. The Afrikaner talking about his people's repression in the aftermath of the Boer War reminds me of Southerners I knew in Washington 20 years ago who spoke of the Civil War in the same intense, resentful way, as if it had happened last Thursday. Blacks too put me in mind of those in a bygone American South running out of patience, knowing their tormentors much better than blacks in the North knew whites, knowing them to a point of contempt that almost compelled forgiveness.

But there will be no forgiveness in South Africa. This is an evil system, no less evil for being tragic, built on the compulsions of an insular and insolent shortsighted minority that has seemed driven to destruction -- its own and that of the people it has repressed and sought to deform. So much could have been done . . . and wasn't. There was so much possibility there. Don't be fooled by attempts to portray this as a conflict between advanced, civilized people and savages. White South Africa was guilty of sustained, breathtaking savagery. God knows what now will follow. I don't know if there is still a chance for a just outcome. There once was.