SAfrica hopes for racial harmony

RaceWorld Cup fever, and the racial harmony it has inspired in her country, is something Caroline Motholo has experienced only from afar.

On the periphery of her more-than-full life ? she runs a day-care center catering mostly to orphans whose parents have died of AIDS ? she has seen the images: white and black South Africans side by side in the stadiums and fan parks, cheering together for their national team before its ouster, sharing pride that their once-shunned homeland is host for such a grand event.

Yet virtually everyone she sees in Vosloorus, a dusty township of 150,000 people on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is black. The community has vast tracts of small homes, and a jobless rate above 40 percent. Few whites ever set foot in it.

“I wish that spirit would stay,” Motholo said, sounding hopeful but not confident that the World Cup euphoria will live on.

She’s lived in Vosloorus for 16 years, but said she knows no white people from Boksburg, the nearby city where ? during apartheid ? blacks performed the low-level jobs but only whites could live.

The images of racial goodwill conveyed via the World Cup to a global TV audience aren’t false. They embody the profound changes that have transformed race relations in South Africa in the two decades since apartheid began to dissolve.

But to declare South Africa a unified rainbow nation, as President Jacob Zuma did last month, is premature. For a reporter returning here for his first long visit since covering the anti-apartheid unrest of 1987-90, the progress is striking ? but so too are the yawning divides that remain, the fears and resentments, the lingering scars of the bad old days.

The progress and the long road ahead both become apparent in a visit to the mostly white Boksburg district of Sunward Park, 20 minutes drive from Motholo’s hard-scrabble neighborhood.

There, Bernard Coetzee is the pastor at the local branch of the Dutch Reformed Church ? the largest denomination among the Afrikaners who held political power during apartheid.

Many young Afrikaners feel comfortable under a black-led government, says the 48-year-old Coetzee. “But for my generation, the change is more difficult than for them,” he said. “We grew up in apartheid.”

One of the toughest adjustments for his community, he said, relates to affirmative action policies which give preference to blacks, people of mixed race, and even white women over white men.

“They’re the last in the row now,” he said. “That’s the most difficult thing.”

Back in 1988, Boksburg made international news when right-wing Afrikaners won control of the town council and voted to ban blacks from public facilities that recently had been integrated ? including the town hall and a large lakeside park.

Now the park is a favorite leisure spot for blacks, and Boksburg ? along with many other nearby towns ? is governed by a black-run municipal council.

Mthuthuzeli Siboza, 49, serves on that council, representing Vosloorus. He bemoans the township’s rampant unemployment and HIV/AIDS epidemic, and gives mixed grades on race relations.

“Racism will remain with us forever,” he said. “But you can see people are forgetting about their negative tendencies and uniting around soccer.”

At Coetzee’s Sunward Park Community Church, the congregation now includes a few blacks, as does its day camp program, run by youth pastor Gerrit Visser.

The 27-year-old Visser epitomizes the post-apartheid outlook of many under-30 whites. Even though he once was carjacked by blacks who threatened to kill him, he is upbeat about race relations and South Africa’s future.

He told of a cousin who has moved to Britain and telephoned to say that Visser should do likewise. “I said to him, ‘You don’t understand. I love these challenges,'” Visser said. “Stick here, make a plan… We have every reason to be pessimistic, but we’re optimistic.”

Two years ago, Visser said, he and two friends flew to Uganda and hitchhiked back home across southern Africa.

“Wherever we went, somehow the locals knew we were South African,” he said proudly. “They told us, ‘You walk like you’re from around here.'”

Thato Motsepe, 22, an aspiring actress and recent graduate of the University of Johannesburg, said the big divide in her generation has more to do with education and ambition than skin color. Describing herself as colorblind, she said interracial dating is increasingly common, and more young whites are learning African languages.

Like other blacks her age, Motsepe venerates Nelson Mandela, the longtime political prisoner elected in 1994 as the first post-apartheid president. But she feels no compunction to view her world through the prism of the anti-apartheid struggle.

“The older generation will always see color ? it will remind them of some kind of pain,” she said. “It’s time we younger South Africans stop imitating what they went through. It’s time to move on.”

South Africans of Motsepe’s and Visser’s generation have only fleeting memories, if any, of the full-fledged apartheid system that prevailed from 1948 through the 1980s. Blacks had no vote in national elections; residential areas, schools, hospitals, even beaches were racially segregated.

For foreign journalists based here at the time, the system produced jarring experiences ? evading police barricades sealing off volatile black townships, covering illegal protests, perhaps even getting tear-gassed ? then returning by evening to a placid, whites-only suburb.

Now, even affluent, mostly white neighborhoods are apt to include some black homeowners, but there are relatively few areas nationwide that are thoroughly mixed. Boksburg had one such suburb in the 1990s, Dawn Park, but white flight has left it virtually all black.

As for the black townships, like Vosloorus, “we don’t go there,” Coetzee said.

Indeed, many of the hundreds of down-on-their-luck whites who’ve set up squatter camps in recent years would have the option of buying inexpensive new homes in the townships ? but haven’t done so.

“Members of the black middle class have moved into traditional white areas, but we don’t find a reciprocation,” said Eddie Makue, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. “They’d rather eke out a living as squatters because of this misperception that the townships are unsafe.”

Like many South Africans, Makue was pleasantly astounded when thousands of Afrikaner rugby fans from Pretoria made their first-ever visit to Soweto ? and enjoyed themselves ? for a match in May that had been relocated to the huge black township because of World Cup logistics.

“When white people do come into a black area, they are well received,” Makue said. “Many of those fans were absolutely astonished they could go into a shebeen (pub) and not be robbed.”

Kallie Kriel, head of an Afrikaner-rights lobbying group called AfriForum, was among those at the rugby match.
He accuses the governing African National Congress of tolerating some anti-white racism among its young leaders, but he feels race relations at the grass-roots level are progressing well.

“It’s a relaxed atmosphere among normal people that’s being endangered by the political elite,” he said. “You don’t want that to trickle down to ground level.”

The Soweto rugby match, and the heartwarming World Cup displays of black-white unity, prompted John-Kane Berman, the head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, to issue a status report part way through the soccer tournament.

“Mixing across the color line in schools, universities, hospital wards, and elsewhere, once forbidden by law, is growing,” wrote Kane-Berman. “This day-in, day-out mixing as part of normal life has none of the symbolic significance of excited crowds in football stadiums, but it is more important.”

But he said racial friction could worsen unless two dangers are addressed.

“One is that continuing corruption, crime and state failure … will cause more and more whites to see failure in racial terms,” he wrote. “The other risk is that widening material inequality will lead to growing racial tension for the obvious reason that so much of the country’s private wealth remains in white hands.”

Indeed, the economic gap remains wide, with the average white household’s income several times that of the average black household. Yet affluence doesn’t guarantee peace of mind ? as reflected by the popularity of a book on emigration: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

For now, whites make up 9 percent of the population of 48 million, blacks about 80 percent.

In many white neighborhoods, the houses are sealed off by high walls, often topped with metal spikes and electrified wire and bearing the logos of armed-response security companies. In the wealthier suburbs, odds are good that behind the walls is a swimming pool and lush patio.

Some whites ? and some blacks, as well ? say one drawback of their country is constant stress, worrying about crime. They may get used to it, then notice it again with dismay when they return after travel abroad.

Other grievances vary by neighborhood. While blacks in the townships complain about inadequate housing and poor schools, whites in the suburbs gripe about deteriorating public services ? trash collection, road maintenance.

One of the challenges ? difficult in any nation ? is for black and white, rich and poor to try to see across the divide and find some common bonds and understandings.

“At the human level, everybody wants to make it work ? we’re all a part of this fantastic, beautiful country,” said Sibongile Mkhabela, who as a high school student was jailed for her role as a leader of the 1976 Soweto uprising and is now CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

“Where the will falls off is when the self-interest comes in,” Mkhabela said. “What’s needed is for all of us to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, to understand we might be inconvenienced, we might feel discriminated against, but in the long term it’s in the best interest of the country.”

Hard at work with her orphans in Vosloorus, Caroline Motholo says she loves her job, yet describes it as a constant struggle ? scrounging for supplies, lobbying for funds, preaching safe sex to a community not always eager for that message. Cartons of government-supplied condoms are piled floor to ceiling in one of the center’s rooms.

At 54, she’s old enough to have vivid memories of apartheid, and overall is grateful for the changes since then. She views white South Africans collectively as somewhat selfish, but says they have no reason to be frightened.

“Nobody is going to hurt anybody,” she said. “We can’t do anything without the whites. They can’t do anything without the blacks.”

Editor’s note: David Crary was the AP’s news editor in South Africa from 1987-1990, during the climactic stages of the anti-apartheid struggle. He returned for a five-week stint in conjunction with the World Cup.

Source: The Associated Press.