Documentary : South Africa, at History’s Crossroads : A correspondent sees hope for the nation in its long, painful struggle to end apartheid.
More than five years ago, as a newly arrived correspondent, I learned an important lesson from the courageous people of this little township. And now, as I leave, their example gives me hope for South Africa.
Oukasie had existed for half a century to tend the rose bushes, work the factory lines, clean the clothes and mind the children for whites in Brits, half a mile away.
Trouble was, the whites had suddenly decided that Oukasie was getting too close. So they set up a new township, 15 miles further down the road, ordered Oukasie to move and sent in the bulldozers.
When a court order stopped the bulldozers, the whites turned to one of apartheid’s more sinister weapons: They cut off all services in hopes of making this the most unpleasant place on Earth to live.
And was it ever unpleasant! Several thousand men, women and children were forced to live in shacks, without electricity, water, telephones or toilets. Yet, by fighting to stay, they had forced a showdown with the powerful white state that I feared would end, as it so often did in those days, in tragedy.
When I returned to Oukasie recently, I found a township with bright new street lights, new toilets for every shack, water taps, a new paved road and even a new stop sign. The clatter of hammers and shovels filled the air. Some residents were even putting up new fences.
Oukasie had won its war.
“The Boers (Afrikaners) were fighting us. They said we must go,” explained Ellen Khoza, 61, an Oukasie resident since 1949. “But now everything has changed. Oukasie is our place again. And those whites in town--well, they’re really all right.”
The battle for racial supremacy in South Africa is, for all intents and purposes, over now. Nelson Mandela has been freed from jail, anti-apartheid groups have been legalized, and signs of free speech and free political activity are evident everywhere for the first time in 350 years.
The 20% white minority stands on the verge of handing political power to a government elected by all of South Africa’s people. And few can now doubt that black people will soon be in charge.
But racial equality under the law, as Americans know well, is no guarantee of racial harmony. The coming year--and probably the next five or 10 or 20 years--will dangerously stretch the weak fabric of South African society.
The citizenry already has become numbed by violence, which rages at a pace that would horrify any civilized nation. Much of it is political and some is plainly criminal. A troubling segment of it is racial, such as the growing attacks by right-wing whites on blacks and the killing of a white Newport Beach, Calif., Fulbright scholar last week in Cape Town. And most of the violence is clearly beyond the investigative capacity of the national police.
Will the killing diminish with the arrival of a popularly elected government? That is anyone’s guess, but the country’s new leaders will be hard-pressed to stop it. The other big worry is the economy. Sub-Saharan Africa’s industrial giant now is suffering through what is likely to be its fourth consecutive year of recession. And it lacks the muscle to uplift the millions of blacks who wait to be rescued from apartheid.
When I look back on the last five years in South Africa, though, I see reasons for hope in the courage of the people of Oukasie--and of Crossroads, of Soweto and of the hundreds of other townships so nearly crushed by the jackboot of apartheid.
Too many have suffered, and too many have died, for South Africa to fail.
Of course, the country’s future can’t help but be hurt by the loss of so many solid community leaders to assassins’ bullets.
Typical of them was Pro Jack, an anti-apartheid activist in Cape Town who became a friend of mine. He was little known outside his home territory, though he had come from a large family of activists. His father had been jailed for anti-apartheid work, and Pro Jack and his sister both had spent time in jail for vague “crimes against the state.”
And yet, like so many who have been imprisoned by white rulers here, Pro Jack had little patience with talk of retribution. Instead, he spent his days and nights working for the future of his townships, trying to persuade militant youth to stay in school and working to improve those schools.
Later, he took it upon himself to mediate the bloody disputes among black taxi operators that have dogged Cape Town’s townships. It may have been that effort that resulted, two years ago, in his assassination at age 35. No one has ever been arrested in that case.
South Africa’s future now belongs to the survivors, so many of whom have endured brutal attempts to crush their wills. The suffering of leaders such as Mandela is well known. But there are tens of thousands of others like him walking South Africa’s streets today.
One of those survivors is Zwelakhe Sisulu. Five years ago, his wife, Zodwa, served me tea in her four-room house in Soweto and told me his plight. Zwelakhe had been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a widely respected journalist. Yet, at that moment, he had been in prison without charge for two years, having been arrested in the middle of the night in front of his two young children.
Zwelakhe Sisulu was released six months later and took up where he left off, running his weekly anti-apartheid newspaper. This month, the paper was reborn as the Sunday Nation. Its close links with Mandela’s African National Congress will make Sisulu an increasingly important behind-the-scenes player in the country’s future.
A new media Establishment is just one of many changes in store for South Africa after the first multiracial elections, now just eight months away.
The African National Congress will probably win those elections, with 50% to 60% of the vote, analysts say. But other parties, including President Frederik W. de Klerk’s ruling National Party, will poll enough votes to remain politically competitive. And the ANC has agreed that minority parties will have a say in any new government.
Black enthusiasm over the end of white rule may well postpone, for a time, pressure for better housing and better-paying jobs. Everyone will see many more black faces on state-run television, in the local post office and even in the corporate suites, where companies worried about government intervention will feel self-conscious, if not guilty, about their lily-white managerial work force.
Although many of the whites who run the country’s industrial engines are talking loudly these days of escape, most will probably stay, ensuring some economic stability. But pressure to redistribute white wealth, seen by many blacks as the ill-gotten gains of apartheid, can only rise.
In the townships, where as many as 40% of the able-bodied citizens are jobless, crime has become a method of wealth redistribution and violence the tool of political hegemony. And blacks, even more often than whites, are the victims.
The prospect of so drastic a change in South Africa’s veneer, and in everyday life, worries whites, even those who have accepted the inevitability of a black-controlled government.
The most worried are Afrikaners, who account for about half the country’s 5 million whites and dominate the civil service. They won’t lose their jobs, but they will lose the 45-year-old system that ensured comfortable work in government offices for them and their kin. A decade from now, attrition will have changed the face of that monolith from white to black.
Most Afrikaners, descended from generations of South Africans, have little choice but to remain here. A small group of them are militant right-wingers, determined to topple any new black government if they do not get an autonomous white homeland. The rest will complain loudly, but, in the end, they’ll try to make do in the new circumstances, accepting a less powerful yet still significant role in this culturally diverse country.
As long as white leaders, such as De Klerk, follow through on their promises, most black South Africans are not too worried about all the militant talk. Throughout the history of apartheid, Afrikaners have loyally followed their leaders.
“It’s not the tiger in Afrikaners . . . that we worry about,” said Paul Vincent-Kinloch, a 21-year-old mixed-race man who sells TVs at a Johannesburg department store. “It’s the donkey. They just follow.”
Other whites, often referred to here as “English-speakers” because most are of British descent, have more options. Many hold second passports from European countries, acquired through birth or marriage. And some already are fleeing, clogging the telephone lines of moving companies and foreign consular offices. Real estate prices in formerly whites-only areas have plummeted and new “for sale” signs sprout every weekend.
Dawyne Orr, a real estate agent in Johannesburg, says finding home buyers is difficult. Few blacks have the money to invest in expensive white areas. And whites worry about living next to what she calls “the Third World.” Orr herself has an Irish passport and would like to leave, but her husband wants to stay in South Africa.
A few weeks ago, David Hirson, an immigration lawyer from Irvine, Calif., placed a small advertisement in local newspapers, offering to help South Africans relocate to the United States.
“I’ve been busy from morning to night every day since I’ve been here,” Hirson said, midway through his two-week visit. “The demand is there. There’s no question. Suddenly, South Africa is getting more scary than before.”
It is not the prospect of a black government that worries these whites as much as the rising rate of violent crime. The townships are awash in guns, including automatic weapons. Johannesburg and Cape Town have murder rates that exceed those in Washington, D.C.
Whites have long been accustomed to living behind high walls. But now they are adding extra bricks, electrified wire and automatic gates. Growing numbers of restaurants now let their patrons in through locked gates and doors. Private security services are booming.
South Africa has fewer police officers per person than almost any country in the world, and many of them are assigned to township unrest. On any given night, fewer than half a dozen cars are available to respond to pleas for help in Johannesburg and Soweto, a metropolitan area of 3 million.
The likelihood of a change in lifestyle also worries many whites. Except for the high rate of crime, the life of a middle-class white person in South Africa has been unequaled anywhere in the world. Luxuries associated with the upper class elsewhere, such as swimming pools and live-in maids, have been affordable to all but the poorest whites for years.
A white pilot once told me about the strange feelings he had the first time he ever made his own bed. He was 25 years old and had taken a job overseas, where he lived in an apartment.
“I look at that thing and suddenly it occurred to me: If I didn’t make it, no one else would,” he said. “It could just sit there for months and wouldn’t get made.”
The transition to democratic rule has been unsettling as well for black South Africans. Most black people in the country are solid citizens who want the same thing that most whites want: to be allowed to live in peace. But today their communities are racked by random violence.
And, among militants in the townships, democracy is a much-used but rarely understood word. After witnessing so little freedom in a society ruled by successive regimes that called themselves democratic, their view of democracy is understandably skewed. Recent public opinion polls suggest that large numbers of blacks believe that free political activity does not, for example, mean that De Klerk should be allowed to campaign in the townships.
Pieter-Dirk Uys, who made himself an enemy of the white-minority government through his satirical stage productions, told an anti-censorship film festival in Johannesburg recently: “See you at the next anti-censorship conference--in a few years’ time.”
Everyone in South Africa wonders--and worries--about the country’s future. Their vision is obscured by the barrage of political rhetoric, of highly publicized “breakthroughs” and “failures” at the negotiations table, and of headlined massacres.
But the road ahead somehow seems clearer when I walk the streets of Oukasie, beneath the ordinary street lights that have replaced the hated “Appolos”--the 100-foot-tall lights that apartheid’s social engineers erected to guide riot police at night.
Naase Manase Monegi, 46, who works the late shift at the Firestone factory, is pleased that his four children can now grow up here, without fear of eviction. But he worries about the coming elections.
“There is going to be a good fight but a dangerous one,” Monegi said. “We are still living with other nations (ethnic groups) who do not want us. I still can’t walk to work at night because the white boys at the high school don’t want to see a black person walking.”
The election will close the door on a difficult period in South Africa’s history, to be sure. But it will also open up new battles for black empowerment and respect.
“This is not the end,” said Oukasie’s Ellen Khoza. “We still need jobs, schools, hospitals. Many of us believe Nelson Mandela will do a lot.”
My prayer for South Africa is that she won’t be disappointed.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.