South Africa recreates itself

April 27, 1994|By Nomsa D. Daniels

Yesterday, I voted for the first time in my life as a South African citizen. No matter that it occurred in New York City instead of on the dusty streets of Soweto, where I was born, or Daveyton, where I grew up. I was one of millions of South Africans, black and white, who, by a simple vote, recreated themselves in the image of what is yet to come for the sake of peace and national reconciliation. The time for bitterness has passed.

But I worry about time and memory. Will the flashy campaign slogans that urge us to look to the future tempt us to forget the past too quickly?

Yes, but the memory must remain. Of those who labored and died, sacrificed and marched, protested and fled into exile, died in detention and live with the scars of apartheid's brutality. Of the great leaders of the struggle: Sol Plaatje, Chief Albert J. Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Steven Biko, Clarence Makwetu, Chris Hani and Nelson Mandela.

But we must not forget the lesser-known heroes and "sheroes," who quietly and valiantly pursued lives of great dignity amid nTC strife. Men like my grandfather who, in his 98th year, has lived apartheid and survived. Who after enduring 20 years of separation from his only son, my father, was overjoyed that I returned home with university degrees in hand. For the sake of the two prizes he cherished most -- freedom and education -- he felt his suffering was redeemed. My grandmother, much to her regret, felt that the price had been too much and was not to be consoled. Sadly, she will not cast her first vote, which makes mine more precious still.

Why did it take so long? Driving through the South African countryside, one vividly sees the absurdity of apartheid and the inevitability of its demise. Two hillsides, one green and manicured with modern houses and a church steeple; the other, barren and crammed with tin-roofed shacks. Two stretches of land, one deep brown and green, with fat cows peacefully grazing; another blood red from erosion, with families struggling to raise food from one-tenth the space. One side ablaze with light and warmth; the other dark and cold. That such a system could have been maintained for so long bedevils the mind.

But oppression is a funny thing.

Some of my relatives champion President Frederick W. de Klerk. Where I see an unsettling symbol of the past, they see a reassuring face who will protect them and serve their interests in the new South Africa. What evidence they have confounds me. That 300 years of history have no bearing on their decision is dismaying, but perhaps that is the nature of forgiveness and the true meaning of this vote.

Still, I worry about the future. Whether we will be able to create a country that can make us proud so that our elders need never long for the days when the white man was in charge.

Traveling in Africa, one hears this again and again from survivors of colonial times. How they harken back to the days when everything worked because the white man was in charge. Liberation through the ballot will not immediately replace the mental chains we have grown comfortable with and scarcely recognize.

It is this unease of spirit that causes us to doubt ourselves and abandon our ancient values and culture. We doubt our leaders and damn their lack of experience before they have scarcely begun to govern. Theirs is a huge, awesome and unenviable task. All the more so because they will be judged by harsher standards and scrutinized more closely simply because of their color and the past mistakes of black Africa.

They will, of course, make mistakes, but having worked to nurture a culture of democracy, it is our duty to judge them by their deeds, or misdeeds, and ensure that they do not abuse our trust. In the months and years to come, they will need our patience, our understanding and our support. We must not expect miracles.

As we grope toward this new democracy, we, too, must do our part. We must exercise our vote responsibly and be active citizens, fully engaged in the development of our country. And we must work to liberate our minds so that our children can take pride in their heritage and feel secure that the country is theirs to inherit when their time comes.

And so I voted. For all those wasted years when the simple right to choose who is to govern was denied because of color. For my grandmother and others like her who died never knowing the wholeness of family life. For my father and thousands of exiles who after 25 years have yet to return home and probably never will. For my relatives in the rural Transkei who were artificially stripped of their citizenship and relegated to a life of poverty and waste. And for my people, that we may begin anew and confront the future knowing where we came from and what we must achieve.

Nomsa D. Daniels is the director of the Professional Development Program, a management training program for black South Africans.

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