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It all depends where you look

NOT YET HOME: A South African Journey by Justin Cartwright, 4th Estate pounds 12.99
South Africa is the litmus test for liberal democracy. If it can survive and thrive, the optimists who talk of the end of history will be vindicated. If it fractures into a mess of warring factions, the pessimists who insist that clan allegiances will always trump larger identities will have been proved right. And that would have wider implications: South Africa, 85 per cent poor to 15 per cent rich, is an uneasy model in miniature of the world as a whole. If this country cannot hold, how long can the planet?

Two years after the elections may seem early for an audit, but if change is coming, the seeds ought to be visible now. Justin Cartwright, a Dickensian novelist (in both the complimentary and not-so-complimentary senses of the adjective) returns to the South Africa of his childhood to look for them. He travels under a variety of guises: rugby reporter, political hanger-on, BBC documentarist. But his aim, it becomes apparent, is to find out what happened both to his homeland and to his home.

It becomes clear to him, lost among the post-modernism of contemporary Johannesburg, that he will never be able to see South Africa as home, that for him landscape (he is reading Simon Schama), family and belief must be united and that in this country they never can be. But can South Africa be home for anyone? The ANC slogan "one nation, many cultures" disquiets Cartwright: his book resolves into a protracted meditation as to whether this is even possible.

There are three set-pieces in the book, one each for 1994, 1995 and 1996. The first is the Presidential Inauguration, coordinated by the impresario Welcome Msomi. Cartwright hangs out with the artists involved, including Nadine Gordimer, and probes the controversy over political control of the arts in the new South Africa. The second is the Rugby World Cup, hijacked by Nelson Mandela, as Cartwright reads it, into an impish piece of nation building. Everyone now knows how this turned out, which robs the story of some of its interest for Cartwright. (South African Rugby, today, has turned fractious again, with the Springbok side once again all-white, one of its players convicted of beating a farm labourer to death, the old flag flying at matches and Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, publicly supporting the All Blacks. It takes a longer spoon even than Mandela's to stir up a cultural symbol as well-entrenched as this sport.) The third, more sombrely, is a meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in New Brighton, a township of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Cartwright listens in on the now-familiar litany of police torture and comtsotsi necklacings. His reaction is to remember Hannah Arendt's dictum about the banality of evil, no more an adequate response here than in its original context.

Cartwright's is conspicuously a novelist's account, rather than a journalist's. ("History," he approvingly quotes Nadine Gordimer as saying, "is often far better portrayed by novelists than by historians.") He gets big things right, while getting little things sometimes spectacularly wrong. He can read like a news editor's worst nightmare. In 1994, for example, he ducks out before the inauguration happens; reporting on the World Cup, he gets bored enough to go home; most unforgivably of all, he sits in on Bantu Holomisa's evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but entirely misses the main event, the General lighting a fuse under the ANC that has led to his dismissal and the credibility of the party and its president being, for the first time, badly tarnished.

Nonetheless, he reads the feel of the country perfectly. Johannesburg is "a jumpy city with hostility and lawlessness breathing ever more closely on the neck of the white suburbanites". The streets of Soweto he finds frightening "not because they loom over you, or crowd in, but because of their endlessness and anonymity", which is unexpected but precisely accurate.

On its own terms, Not Yet Home is a success, oddly amusing and with shards of original insight. But the politics of arts funding can only take the reader so far towards the heart of the South African story, just as thespian dudgeon over theatre funding in the UK could not fully encapsulate the state we're in. Black and White South Africans meet, the great majority of the time, in the workplace. It is in companies, in government departments and in universities that the battle for transformation is being quietly fought and won or lost. Sport and art are important components in the national mind, but in this context they are nonetheless a sideshow. Coming back to South Africa in 1995 Cartwright finds that "everything had changed but nothing had changed". Ja-nee, as they say round here: it depends where you look.