I have just returned from a month in South Africa; visiting family, looking up old friends, making new ones and watching my old homeland trying to wriggle out of apartheid.
It has left me as perplexed as everybody else down there. As a friend remarked, only half jokingly: "What do I think? Well it depends on which day of the week it is." But I did come away with a tale or two that, hopefully, will leave the casual reader as well-confused as anyone else.
The first concerns a banquet held for Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress to celebrate the organization's 80th birthday on January 8.
It's not that the dinner itself was interesting, just that the host was the Bloemfontein City Council. I can't think of an American parallel, unless David Duke were to throw a party for the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP and confess enduring admiration for the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
What an "honor for Bloemfontein," smarmed the deputy mayor in his toast. How wonderfully coincidental that this (very conservative, very white) city should have been the birthplace of the country's two great nationalist movements, the ANC and the Afrikaner National Party.
Now wait a minute. The last time (and probably the first) that white Bloemfontein gave any thought at all to the ANC, or black aspirations in general, was when the guerrillas were bombing statues around City Hall, and the police were locking up people for wearing Nelson Mandela T-Shirts.
Which wasn't so long ago: The ANC called off its military campaign only last year, and Mr. Mandela hasn't even been out of jail two years. Yet here was the Orange Free State Rugby Union -- another bastion of Afrikaner nationalism -- donating the use of its rugby stadium for the ANC anniversary celebrations.
What's more, it hardly got a mention in the local press. Are South Africans already so accustomed to the recently unthinkable?
It's not only the Afrikaner elite, but also the English speaking, old-school-tie crowd -- conservatives who are considered "liberal" only because they reject apartheid -- who have taken to schmoozing with the ANC. A friend tells me that at a recent cocktail party in Johannesburg he watched a high-powered (white) mining executive proudly showing off a photograph of himself with Nelson Mandela. It showed that, in some circles at least, association with "Nelson," the erstwhile "Marxist threat," is as prestigious as a new Rolls Royce.
Probably more significant, certainly from a political standpoint, is that Mr. Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders seem unperturbed, even quite comfortable, to hobnob with their political adversaries and former enemies: government ministers, mine bosses and the like.
Make no mistake, it worries many blacks, including ANC supporters. They fear that Mr. Mandela may be too quick to compromise on their interests in an eventual -- some say inevitable -- partnership with the white minority.
They are not fooled into thinking that President F. W. de Klerk's dramatic abandonment of apartheid signifies a white capitulation a "crumbling under sanctions," as some American activists would have it. Rather, they see it for what it is: a tactical retreat; a deliberate and carefully planned bid for survival by the ruling minority, which realized long ago that apartheid had become a threat, rather than the means, to white survival.
What Mr. de Klerk and his closest advisers want now more than anything is to draw the ANC into government, as partners or at least a strong opposition.
They have set themselves a deadline to achieve it before 1995 when, under current law, a general election must be held. A top aide of Mr. de Klerk confirmed as much to me in a private conversation two years ago, although he didn't put it quite so baldly. The trickiest part, as far as he was concerned, was to get the jittery white electorate to go along with it.
Mr. Mandela is well aware of the ploy, and he sees the perils -- for himself as well as for the whites.
But what if such an arrangement suited him? The ANC and National Party are not so far apart -- and their policies are converging. But they are not so close that talk of an alliance, no matter how loose, would benefit the ANC. At least not yet. Mr. Mandela rightly calls the National Party's overtures "a trap".
As far as the radicals -- both black and white, left and right -- are concerned, that "trap" was sprung long ago. It snapped shut, they say, the day Mr. Mandela walked out of prison and agreed to negotiate.
Meanwhile, everyone is treating the ANC as a sort of shadow government: Foreign governments consult it; overseas celebrities ask its permission to visit or perform in the country; big companies seek its approval to do business, and American activists say they want its nod before they give up on sanctions.
This may sound like the trappings of power. In a normal, representative democracy it would be. But in South Africa -- despite the ground won through protest marches, strikes and boycotts -- real power still rests in Pretoria.
In a twisted way it suits Mr. de Klerk for the ANC to look powerful. It invests responsibility; forces the party to seek solutions to the country's overwhelming problems; in a sense, to govern. And therefore to take blame. It makes Mr. Mandela a prisoner of circumstance just as he once was a prisoner of apartheid.
Black South Africans constantly look to the ANC for salvation, and when it cannot save, they look elsewhere, diminishing its support. At least one quarter, probably more, of all blacks are unemployed, and an even higher proportion are poorly educated. It leaves a large, disgruntled pool of potential voters to be wooed by ANC rivals such as the Pan Africanists, and what may be the only growing Communist Party in the world.
The white rightists, meanwhile aren't worried. Worry is the baggage of power, and they can afford to travel light. They say they are priming for war.
Right-wing leaders such as the Afrikaner Resistance Movement's Eugene TerreBlanche, say that they will take up arms the day a black, or black-led, government takes control. In fact they started their war some time ago, with guerrilla attacks and bombings of National Party offices and government symbols.
They are demanding a white homeland in which to run their own affairs without black participation. But they cannot agree on the boundaries, and are constantly bickering over it.
No one doubts that the rightists could wreak havoc with the fragile democracy now emerging. They are far better armed and trained than their black counterparts on the left. They also have close links with the police, the army and the telecommunications service. Analysts draw parallels with Northern Ireland, and predict a long and bitter conflict.
That may be so, but there is also hope -- a slim hope -- that it may not be. Unlike Northern Ireland, religion is not a fuse in the South African conflict. This is a fight over economic competition and land ownership as much as it is a fight of nationalism and race. The militants might just have the wind taken out of their sails if, as seems increasingly likely, the constitutional negotiators come up with a federal plan; one that would grant a measure of autonomy to various parts of the country.
Violence, meanwhile, is still a troubling factor. Racially or factionally motivated attacks prompt racial and factional reprisals: Zulu vs Xhosa, Zulu vs. Zulu, white vs. black, white vs. white, and so on.
In the Natal province, blood feuds between rival Zulu factions claim lives daily. In the Johannesburg-Soweto area every few weeks black gunmen rampage through black commuter trains with shotguns or machetes killing and wounding passengers at random. Shadowy guerrillas of the leftist Pan Africanist Congress assassinate white policemen and black town councilmen. Attacks often occur apparently without provenance, Beirut-like. In some cases there is evidence of white direction, but proof is elusive.
But outsiders' accounts of violence can be overblown; often reflecting the latent fears of the observer rather than those of the people involved. Many South Africans, for example, believe that life must be terrifying in Washington D.C. and New York because of the drive-by shootings they read about.
The fact is that, despite the indisputable horror of the violence in South Africa, political attacks have actually diminished -- down 26 percent last year, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations. Criminal violence, meanwhile, has risen dramatically -- mainly as a factor of the depressed economy.
In the month I was in the country, two Johannesburg stores I had frequented were robbed by armed gangs. Going to my bank I had to pass through a double-door security check and was frisked for weapons. It had been "hit" five times in 15 months, a bank clerk told me.
Mercedes Benz now offers cars with gun-ports in armor-plated doors, presumably so that drivers can shoot their assailants without dirtying the upholstery.
Because whites are generally wealthier than blacks, most armed robberies, car-jackings, housebreakings and the like tend to be black-on-white, which local government officials say has raised white fear of blacks in many neighborhoods to levels unknown in the apartheid era.
Apartheid once cocooned whites from the unpleasant realities of life in the often squalid, poverty-ridden black shantytowns. They never had to go to the townships. Now the townships have come to them.
Aggravating the problem has been the return of thousands of former exiles, many of them ex-guerrillas, who have little likelihood of finding work. The South African Treasury estimates that 875 people join the ranks of the jobless each day.
If economic prospects are the determinant, things will get worse before they get better.
Finance minister Barend du Plessis says he is hoping only for a 1.2 percent growth in the economy this year; woefully inadequate to cope with the 2.8 percent population increase. What makes it worse is that it would be only the latest in a nTC 15-year string of weak or negative growth years.
Economist Servaas van der Berg has estimated that the government would have to spend an extra $17 billion a year -- almost 10 percent of current gross domestic product -- for the next 10 years simply to raise black health care, housing, education and pensions to the level of that for whites.
No one knows where that kind of money will come from. Gold, the backbone of the economy, is in the doldrums. Weak gold prices have brought mine closures and layoffs of about a quarter of all black miners. The once-powerful black miners union has lost its leverage.
South Africa does have advantages, though, over those African states that were left to founder by their former colonizers. It has an established, technological economy and an experienced management structure that will remain largely in place. Its greatest challenge will be to develop the skills necessary to keep it running.
And this will depend, more than anything, on education -- the field in which black-white inequality is most tragically apparent.
Although school apartheid has been officially scrapped, integration is bedeviled by the fact that black education was, and still is, so bad that few black students can even begin to compete with their white counterparts.
Ongoing boycotts, gang wars and school closures are but transitory aggravations compared to the main problems: critical shortages of teachers and schools. An estimated 37,500 classrooms -- half the current number -- are needed to fill the current backlog. Meanwhile, barely half of all black teachers have themselves graduated from high school.
The discrepancy is reflected in last year's national high school examinations: 97 percent of white seniors but only 39 percent of black students scored well enough to graduate.
You can repeal apartheid a hundred times over and give blacks the vote, a black high school teacher told me, but "until our people are educated we will never be equal."
The contradictions of 1990s South Africa are so graphic and so numerous that one could easily come away believing that the country will one day simply implode.
But I couldn't be depressed as I sat with friends at a farewell barbecue on a typically warm January evening before leaving Johannesburg. I listened to Steve Tshwete speak of his love for the game of cricket and how he would like to see the South African team do well in an upcoming international tournament. Mr. Tshwete, who is black, is the ANC's shadow sports minister, and I had to jolt myself into remembering that not so long ago he was a tough-talking commander of the ANC's guerrilla wing.
Yes, there is fear and uncertainty in South Africa these days -- among all the people. But there is also a sense of release; the notion that finally they can deal with the real problems, like homelessness, illiteracy, unemployment, how to mold a democracy out of historic inequality -- all the things that used to be obscured by apartheid.
But it would be naive to think that apartheid's legacy will be expunged soon, or that it will be achieved peacefully. The economic chasm is simply too great to bridge. It means there will always be a ruling minority here; one that guards its privileges jealously, just as there was with apartheid. Only this time it will be made up of all colors and creeds.
Could anyone expect better?