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AFRICAN SUNSET

LAST DAYS IN CLOUD CUCKOOLAND
By Graham Boynton
Random House 299pp $24

Graham Boynton and I come from a reviled minority group, white Africans. We both spent our youth on that continent during the last palmy days of white rule--Boynton in Rhodesia, me in Kenya. After having ''had the bad taste to have grown up in'' racist regimes, each of us returned in the late '70s and '80s as reporters to cover the waning years of white rule in southern Africa.

Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland is an unsettling depiction of that era and of the subsequent period of black rule. Make no mistake, this is a bleak book that--true to Africa and its unsentimental ways--doesn't speculate on how everything might turn out all right. For Boynton, a liberal expelled from South Africa for offending the authorities, finds that whites' predictions that black rulers would ruin the countries have largely come true. And this, he says, is less due to the whites' legacy than to their successors' venality and hubris.

The tensions of the old regimes' last days come alive in these pages. Thugs abounded, but even so, they were overcounted by the international press. Boynton locates one of the media's favorite bogeymen, Rhodesian leader Ian D. Smith, ironically living unguarded next to the fortified embassy of one of his old foes, the Cubans, in Harare. And even though he finds that ''Smith still talked with the patronizing confidence of someone who had God and the truth on his side,'' the author provides a surprisingly sympathetic portrait. ''What Rhodesians like Smith inherited from their forefathers,'' Boynton observes, ''was a frontier conservatism that was defined by the need to prevail in a harsh and hostile landscape.''

Smith's Rhodesia is now Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Revisiting it, Boynton, who now lives in the U.S., found ''the ordinary black Zimbabwean was economically worse off now than he had been under white rule.'' And, he says, constitutional rights are no more respected now than in the past.

Boynton catalogs the horrors, including government-tolerated elephant and rhino poaching, that have wrought eternal mischief in only a few short years. Noting that a population explosion has put a premium on land, he writes with empathy of the ''resentment of the white man's reserves and the white man's animals.'' Then, he skewers the officials who use this resentment as an excuse to turn a blind eye.

One problem with the book is its title, drawn from a quip by Margaret Thatcher. Most whites I knew were not in cloud cuckooland: They knew majority rule was just a matter of time. So any implication that whites were living a surreal existence is off-target. In the liberation wars, as much was at stake for whites as for blacks. The Vietnam War--now that was something that seemed surreal to my Kenyan and Rhodesian friends.

So why read such a depressing, dated tome? The white tribe has scattered, the old attitudes are dead, aren't they? Well, I, for one, now live on New York City's supposedly progressive Upper West Side, across the street from an almost totally black and Hispanic high school in an area that is nearly 100% white. It's familiar ground: I've heard all the rationales before.

By TIMOTHY BELKNAP



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PHOTO: Cover, ``Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland''


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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