South Africa

1,207 words

By Paul Bennett 

"So they all talked of the sickness of the land, of the
broken tribe and the broken house ..."--Cry the Beloved Country, 
by Alan Paton, (1948).

Many positive faces of South Africa counter the dismal outlook
depicted in some commentaries about  "the land of the Rainbow People of
God."


Fresh from five weeks as a tourist there, I'm pleased to report
that my wife and I saw no violence while driving 6,500 kilometers in a
small rented car from Cape Town to East London, through the Transkei to
Durban, up into northern KwaZulu-Natal and across to Johannesburg.

The nearest thing to an ugly scene we came across was a peaceful
but noisy demonstration by striking autoworkers on the steps of city hall
in industrial East London.

Mind you, we didn't go looking for violence, and we certainly heard
from many whites that robbery, injury or death wasn't that far away. The
horror stories widely reported upon are no doubt all too true.

Statistics show most of the violence is still black against black
-- the ratio of black to white murder victims is 20 to 1, of rape 19:1, but
the abuses are not as rampant as during apartheid's final, vicious war of
the 1980s and early to mid-1990s.

Setting our own itinerary, we wanted to see "The Beloved Country"
with our eyes and ears open and enjoy some of its many pleasures --
warm-water beaches, vast panoramas, rustic "homelands," jungles, wildlife
reserves and the wine country.

As a journalist and editor, I've closely watched developments in
South Africa from afar for many years. I refrained from visiting the
country until after the Mandela revolution overturned the hated and hateful
apartheid regime.

What was obvious was that the blacks -- with the exception of the
minority of out-and-out criminal psychopaths concentrated mainly in the
black "locations" outside major cities -- are magnificently patient and
tolerant of the slow pace of change and the still-superior attitude of the
whites.

While the "broken tribe" can never be mended, it may yet be
replaced by a long-lived rainbow society of intellectual fervor, vision and
courage, provided the goodwill on both sides is carefully nurtured.

Now that color bars are well and truly down, the sight of
mixed-race and same-gender couples is not unusual, especially in
forward-looking cities such as Cape Town and the resort areas along the
south coast.

Farther north-east, our hosts in Durban encouraged us to attend a
musical, Kat and the Kings , written, directed and performed by a talented
group of Cape Coloreds at the former whites-only university.

The show, a retrospective on the impact of apartheid on Colored
musicians from the 1950s on, was enthralling, if slightly less than
Broadway standard. the mixed-race audience loved it.

Works by black and white painters and printmakers are on show at
the Pietermaritzburg Art Gallery. the city, once a bastion of Boer power,
is among the most open to acceptance of "the new South Africa."

Change is too slow for many friends of South Africa, and many South
Africans as well. But a mature attitude of acknowledgment that full
equality will take time was conveyed to us in many conversations with
blacks.

However, change is happening. The signs of a better life and
society to come -- one envisioned and hoped for by Paton in 1948 -- may be
seen in many places.

* New housing is springing up in hundreds of shanty-town
"locations" in the outer suburbs of major communities.

* Provision of sewers, water and power to village communities in
the former "homelands" is a high government priority. we saw evidence of
work under way or planned in many areas.

* Affirmative action hiring and throwing open the schools to all
races has rankled many whites, but is a quantum leap for the rights of
black people.

While some younger white families wring their hands and seek to
escape by migrating to another country (New Zealand is a current favorite),
a majority of whites welcome the overthrow of apartheid.

"For many years, we feared this country was dying of cancer," said
Louise Hughes, co-owner of a small resort hotel in Port Alfred, Western
Cape Province, "but now we feel the threat has been lifted. We have a whole
new lease on life and we're eager to get on with a fairer society."

Dave Vermaak, a white life insurance company executive in
Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal province, concurred. His company has always hired
on the basis of racial proportion, and thus didn't need to make adjustments
when the ANC-dominated government took power three years ago.

Moses, black manager of Edgar's department store in Empangeni, was
also sanguine about the future. Whole new worlds of opportunity are opening
for him, including a trip to New York for intensive management training.

Near Stellenbosch, an easy commute to Cape Town in Western Cape
Province, we stayed in a renovated rondavel, formerly quarters for the
black workers at a vineyard and farm. The blacks had been relocated to a
new town a kilometer or two away. Although the houses are small by western
standards, the town was well-designed, bright and happy-looking,

The owner's daughter, mother of a four-year-old herself, introduced
us to her step-sister, a 10-year-old black named Bongi, adopted as an
infant when her real mother abandoned their homestead. "Her father couldn't
look after her by himself," she explained, "so he brought her to our door
and we've kept her ever since."

Bongi is a very lucky child. Abandonment of children -- especially
newborns -- is one of many national problems pressing South Africa;
headlines in the papers discuss the issue daily.

Another is corruption within government, even the most vulnerable
parts of the state, such as income tax. There's an outcry because employers
are having to pay their payroll tax twice, since the first cheques were
illegally cashed by IRS employees.

It's crime, but at least it's non-violent crime. So was the theft
of our sandals, left at the foot of the steps at a Morgan Bay resort. As I
asked after the missing footwear, a local tribesman invited me to join him
in a six-pack of Lion Lager as a form of commiseration.

Near the end of his prophetic and poetic book, Paton wrote: 
"Yet men were afraid, with a fear that was deep, deep in the heart, a fear
so deep that they hid their kindness, or brought it out with fierceness and
anger, and hid it behind fierce and frowning eyes. They were afraid because
they were so few. And such fear could not be cast out, but by love ..."

"I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they turn to
loving they will find we are turned to hating."

With the exception of a small hardened minority, it does not seem
that the black majority has yet turned to hating.

Friends of South Africa can only hope that many more random acts of
kindness such as the Stellenbosch farmer's may overturn Valpy's assessment
that the country has a five-year window to stop its race to hell.

Beyond good wishes, what South Africa desperately needs is tangible
stuff: Foreign investment to help construct the building blocks
deliberately left unmade by apartheid.

And perhaps few hundred more Canadian tourists like us, who may
well return home to sing the praises of "The Beloved Country" -- flaws and
all.

Professional journalist Paul Bennett, a one-time Reuters
correspondent, is a longtime observer of world affairs.


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