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.