For a reporter, some foreign correspondents say, the proper length of time to get a fix on a country is either two weeks or two years. A stay of any other duration, the theory runs, only muddles the clarity of one's first impressions without producing very much in the way of understanding. If reading just one relatively short, pungent book about South Africa can be considered the literary equivalent of a two-week visit, maybe there's something to the notion. Particularly, that is, if the book in question is Richard Stengel's January Sun.
The idea behind Stengel's book is as smart as it is simple: Take a small city of roughly 20,000 in the Transvaal, whose inhabitants regard it as ''a microcosm of South Africa,'' and document a single day in the lives of three of its people: a Boer veterinarian-cattle rancher, a black (Tswana) taxi driver and sometime political activist, and an Indian merchant. Because all three men have occupations that bring them into daily contaat with a broad cross-section of the community, the device also allows Stengel to provide a series of vivid portraits illustrating the paradoxes of this bewildering, yet oddly familiar, land.
And yes, the outrages too. Pick any page of January Sun and you will find it suffused with the South African national obsession with race. Dr. Ronald de la Rey, a cattle eugenicist, does not hesitate to extrapolate from the animal kingdom to the human. ''If you cross a Simmental and a Brahman, you're taking two good qualities and mixing them. If you cross a black and a white, you're crossing bad and good. You don't get improvement with black and white. It's a bad hybrid. . ..''
Every day, de la Rey says, people make observations about ethnic or national differences: Italians are warm, the English are cold. Only when people generalize about blacks is it considered unfair and bigoted. Why shouldn't he point out differences between black and white, or between one black tribe and another? The Tswanas, he suggests, are weak and devious. The Zulus, by contrast, are proud and aggressive. ''You'll never find a Tswana working in a mine like a Zulu,'' he says. ''The Tswanas would rather be clerks.''
Tribalism among humans is inevitable, he thinks, and Afrikaners are simply the most poweeful tribe. But whether or not de la Rey's logic and standards of evidence make the reader's skin crawl, Stengel himself offers no rebuttal. Nor does he intervene when taxi driver Marshall Cornelius Buys, known to everybody in the black township of Oukasie by his nickname ''Life,'' denounces whites as heartless and humorless; nor when he explains that among the Tswana, the hind parts of the chicken and cow can be eaten only by women ''because she lies on her back during sex.'' Nor when well, you get the idea.
While he never exactly says so, he appears to have guaranteed his subjects that he would allow them to speak for themselves without editorial interruption, thus achieving a straightforwardness and intimacy rarely encountered in discussions of South Africa. The point of view that probably will seem least alien to the majority of American readers, for example, may be that of Jaiprakash Bhula, general-store proprietor and indignant liberal. As what many Afrikaners call a ''Brown Jew'' a double-edged slur Jai has his small ways of getting even. When white customers address him in Afrikaans, he answers in English. ''I know that he does not consider me a South African, but a foreigner, yet he insists, he demands that I speak Afrikaans in my shop. But if they come in and are old, I will talk to them in Afrikaans. Or if a black comes in who speaks to me in Afrikaans I will talk to him in Afrikaans.''
So often obscured amid a wilderness of slogans, Stengel's South Africans stand before the reader both as distinct individuals and as representative types with the effect of making especially vivid the oft-repeated truism that whatever else South Africa may be, it sure ain't Alabama.