MEMOIR: Donald McRae is in South Africa to promote his new book, Under Our Skin. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

DONALD McRae's memoir of his youth hauntingly captures what apartheid did to his family. It was ripped apart and, at times, filled with hate. Yet this is far more than recollections about one ordinary family. It is a memoir about a certain period in South Africa's history.

An award-winning (now British) author and sports journalist, whose best selling books include Every Second Counts, about heart transplant surgeon Chris Barnard, McRae is in South Africa to promote Under Our Skin: A White Family's Journey through South Africa's Darkest Years (Simon & Schuster) - a story you'll not easily forget.

He arrives shaken by insinuations that he ha s not only betrayed his family but has used the torture in detention of anti-apartheid activists Neil Aggett and Auret van Heerden to sell his book, in which he details the death of Aggett and the weird relationship between Van Heerden and his torturers.

A soft-spoken McRae says he is scandalised by the suggestion of opportunism.

Broadening the scope of his childhood memories to include the seismic events that rocked South Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s has attracted criticism he had not anticipated.

"I've wanted to write this book since 2002 but I wasn't ready back then," he says. He didn't want his latest book to be a self-indulgent story about a white boy who refused to kill black people.

He was studying English literature at Wits University when Aggett and his partner of seven years, Liz Floyd, were arrested, and it hit him like a hammer blow.

"I was stunned. My family was appalled. These were just two young doctors helping black people fight for their rights."

A celebratory rally was held at Wits when detainees, including Floyd, Van Heerden and Barbara Hogan, were released in the wake of Aggett's death and the resulting international outcry. McRae was there: "I have felt since then that while Neil's name has not been forgotten, it has not been spoken about in the detail it should be."

Van Heerden, who is today president of the Washington DC-based Fair Labor Association, spoke in great detail about both his and Aggett's experiences at John Vorster Square. For weeks, they were in opposite cells. "It's probably the first time Van Heerden has spelt out the bizarre relationship between his torturers and himself."

The details of Van Heerden's gruesome ordeal make difficult reading. Sometimes his tormenters would cease their work to massage his wounds and weep as they confided their intimate family problems to him. Then they would pick up the tools of their awful trade and start again.

Yet even during the subsequent court case he would have coffee breaks with his torturers. "They blamed him for Neil's suicide but Auret sued them after his release and won. He's an amazing man."

The book starts with McRae's childhood, growing up in a big house in the "plush gardens of Germiston - we also had them out there on the East Rand!"

His father, Ian McRae, was on his way to becoming CEO of Eskom, the largest power utility in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. His mother, Jess, was a typical 1960s housewife and his sister, Heather, was forthright and outspoken. Pivotal to the home was Maggie, their domestic worker. McRae writes evocatively of her cooking the family meals and eating the leftovers, alone in her room, off tin plates. She was not allowed to use their crockery or cutlery. His injured memory, as a little boy, of Maggie choosing to go home to her children when the McRaes went on holiday, resulting in their dogs being kennelled, makes me squirm.

When he was sad, it was to Maggie he ran, "and my tears would fall on her uniform", says McRae, now a father of three.

He asked his dad why he called all black men "John" - it was better than calling them "boy".

McRae has captured, through recalled naivety, the heart of white suburbia back then.

"My parents were not bad people; they were average South Africans, but it's hard for them to read this now," he agrees.

His teen years brought the bogey of military conscription, with Veld School and lectures on the communist onslaught. When he told his father he had no intention of being called up, they had a nose-to-nose shouting match. Their relationship was ripped apart. Such was the pressure to conform that McRae's parents took him to psychiatrists. They discussed electro-convulsive therapy as a possible way of shocking sense into him..

"My dad, a connoisseur of electricity, would (surely) have resisted the jolting short cut of burning a chunk of my brain to pacify me," he writes. His sister was less certain. The house vibrated with tension, his mother retreating into unhappiness.

Back then, McRae was unaware that his father had been working quietly behind the scenes to improve black workers' conditions at Eskom for years. When he was roughly challenged by racist whites, it was they who blinked first.

When McRae announced that as part of his Wits master's degree, he was going to teach in Diepkloof, Soweto, his parents supported him.

He was, initially, the only white in the 1000-strong school. In the flowing, understated manner that characterises his fine writing, he tells of fun with black friends in shebeens.

There he met Honey, a Soweto student, also 22. Before they slipped into bed, she warned him they were about to break the Immorality Act, which outlawed sex across the colour line. "But under our skin we are all the same," she said.

When his call-up papers arrived, McRae decided he could not "shoot the people I had taught". Shortly after he left for London, his sister joined him with her husband. Their parents sold the big house. It was like a death in the family.

McRae's father continued in his enlightened ways, secretly meeting the African National Congress in Soweto to discuss electrifying the dark township.

His phone was tapped, threatening calls were received, yet when he finally informed the government, he was told to continue his work.

Jess McRae became involved in several regeneration projects in Alexandra township.

Before publication, McRae gave the book to his committed South African parents, now in their 80s. They approved of it.

"It's an acknowledgement of my father's work and bravery," says McRae.

The anguish he feels when bidding farewell every few months to his ageing parents never gets better - "In fact it gets worse. The legacy of apartheid's pain continues."