In South Africa of old, a handshake is refused

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 17, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

POTCHEFSTROOM, South Africa -- Sometimes a simple act can define a place and its people.

In this case it was a handshake, or more accurately one that was refused in this conservative enclave that pushed South Africa into today's all-important referendum on political reform.

It happened at Conservative Party headquarters, a beehive of white right-wing activity before a special election last month that the CP subsequently won, driving President F. W. de Klerk's more progressive white National Party government to call the referendum.

I had gone there with another American reporter to try to interview the CP candidate, Andries Beyers, a man who wants to march South Africa back to its racist past and, consequently, was embraced by this little town.

Potchefstroom is only about an hour's drive from Johannesburg, South Africa's major city, but it's years behind in progress toward the modern world.

Johannesburg is the emerging new South Africa, where blacks and whites are learning to live together; Potchefstroom is stuck comfortably and defiantly in the old.

CP headquarters looked like a scene from Montgomery or Birmingham, Ala., in the '50s. A half-dozen old white men sat on the big front porch of a quaint one-story house scheming to prevent modern ideas from intruding on their segregationist lives.

They didn't look glad to see a black American reporter who must have represented their worst nightmares. Their whole campaign is based on keeping their world white and confining the black majority to specially designated black areas, except when they enter "white South Africa" as laborers or maids.

The old men glared, but no one spoke as we walked into the house to find a room full of matronly women working the telephones to get out the right-wing vote.

The candidate wasn't there. Maybe we should go to some of the polling stations, we were told. Everyone at campaign headquarters was busy.

The campaign manager, a man named Greyling, would look only at my white colleague as he spoke to us. Or I guess to her. Even if I asked a question.

He looked agitated. Maybe it was the pressures of the campaign. Maybe he was tired of reporters. At any rate, he seemed anxious to see us go.

We thanked him for his time, and my colleague extended her hand, which he shook. I extended my hand, and he turned away. He hesitated for a second and looked at the black hand from the corner of his eye. Another man caught my eye as I held my hand in midair, and he gave me a hard glare.

That evening, I talked with a black activist in the neighboring black township of Ikageng and related the tale of the non-handshake.

He said people like that never shook hands with blacks in Potchefstroom, and he matched my story with a similar one.

"When we talk of the Afrikaner we talk of people that apartheid has done damage to," said Zacharia Molekane. "We talk of people that were brainwashed for many years."

Later that same evening, my white colleague went to a whites-only rally in Potchefstroom, and I went to continue our conversation with Zacharia and two of his township friends.

He suggested the bar of a hotel down the street from the meeting hall. (Later, he confessed he'd never had a drink there.) I walked confidently into the lobby and asked the receptionist to direct us to the bar. She looked uncomfortable.

"I'm sorry but we are having private functions there tonight," she said. I asked again to make sure she knew I wanted the bar and not a meeting room. Again, she said there were "functions" there.

As the door of the Elgro Hotel closed behind us, Zacharia exclaimed almost cheerfully that the woman had found a nice way to refuse us service.

"People wonder how I can live in a place like this," said Zacharia, a man in his mid-30s with a family and an obvious sense of self-worth. "But I grew up in this place, and I'm proud to be working with the African National Congress to change it."

He knows it might take a long time. "It might take us something like 10 years. The next generation might be in a position to live together as one nation."

But for the moment, Zacharia's one nation is the last thing the whites of Potchefstroom want. They want the old South Africa back.

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