Baltimore bishop helped S. Africa make history

May 03, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Roman Catholic Bishop John H. Ricard, back in Baltimore yesterday from a 12-day official visit to South Africa, was optimistic about a black-led government's ability to handle "challenges on a massive scale" in the new democracy.

The substantial majority apparently won by Nelson Mandela's African National Congress "means there will be a government of national unity," the Baltimore auxiliary bishop said.

But he did not discount "the enormous problems" in a nation whose wealth is concentrated in a small percentage of the population, and where unemployment is high, especially among young blacks.

He was one of 15 Catholic bishops from around the world invited by the South African government to be part of a large international team of election observers. He was the only Catholic bishop from the United States and the only black bishop in the group, he said.

"I have been talking to conservative whites -- Afrikaners -- as well as blacks," he said in an interview. "Both displayed a sense of national purpose and unity, and both felt a sense of relief that they were able to pull this election off."

The bishop said that a middle-aged Afrikaner -- who supported President F. W. de Klerk's National Party -- was typical of whites expressing their "relief" that the nation's first all-race elections had finally occurred.

"He told me, 'Bishop, this is a day of liberation for the white people as well as the black people,' " recalled the Baltimore churchman. "The man told me he had been ashamed for years to be known as a South African when he traveled outside the country."

Bishop Ricard, who flew to Johannesburg April 20 and returned Sunday night, said he was assigned to the southeastern industrial city of Port Elizabeth, where he visited about 40 of the nearly 100 polling places.

"I offered advice and counsel and arbitrated disputes," he said. "As official observers, we were trusted to go into the voting booth with a person needing assistance, such as with the elderly, illiterate or disabled."

On the outskirts of modern Port Elizabeth, Bishop Ricard's host, Catholic Bishop Michael Coleman, pointed to several acres that were an example of the "Third World reality" in the midst of prosperous South Africa.

"There had been an empty field merely four months ago," Bishop Ricard recalled. "Now, it's a crowded shanty town, home to tens of thousands of squatters, blacks, including children, living in cardboard boxes in dirt and mud, next to temporary sinks and toilets provided by the government."

The country "has no idea how many black citizens it has," he said. The number is estimated at 30 million to 50 million. "The solution is to create jobs for them."

Up to the day of the election, there had been fear of violence -- terrorist bombs killed 21 people and injured dozens more in the two days preceding the voting -- "but the apprehension subsided once the voting started," the bishop said.

"But certainly, there are all the elements for violence," Bishop Ricard said. "There are the youths with homemade guns, growing up in an atmosphere of civil disobedience encouraged by the ANC, which now has reversed that policy.

"In Soweto, they haven't paid for utilities for decades. The new government must deal with challenges on a massive scale."

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