Pope's failure to make stop in Soweto disappoints many S. African blacks

September 17, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Pope John Paul II began his first official visit to South Africa yesterday with praise for President Nelson Mandela and the country's progress since the end of apartheid. But he has already disappointed many South )) Africans by making no plans to travel to black townships during his 40-hour stay.

The 75-year-old pontiff began his visit by slowly descending the steps of the plane that carried him from Cameroon and accepting the greetings of four orphans who held up a basket of South African soil that he kissed, his traditional gesture on visiting any country for the first time.

His kissing the basket of earth instead of the tarmac was a reminder that he is no longer limber enough to kneel and kiss the ground.

Pope John Paul then exchanged a warm handshake with Mr. Mandela, a touching moment between two septuagenarians who outlived the political systems they had opposed. Mr. Mandela, who is two years older than the pope, gripped the pope's left arm to help him walk along a red carpet to a small covered podium.

Pope John Paul described the "new South Africa" as a country "firmly set on the course of reconciliation and harmony among all its citizens," with special praise for Mr. Mandela.

Mr. Mandela in return praised the pope both for his decision to travel to South Africa and for not having made an official visit during the apartheid era.

The pope had briefly been in South Africa in 1988, but only because bad weather forced his plane to land at Johannesburg instead of his original destination, the small country of Lesotho. But he quickly departed for Lesotho by car, despite efforts by South Africa's then foreign minister to offer an official welcome.

This time, many South Africans made no secret of their displeasure that no room was made in the pope's crowded schedule for a visit to a traditionally black area, especially to Soweto, the community of 4 million people southwest of Johannesburg that became synonymous with black suffering and struggle during the years of apartheid.

In his airport statement, the pope said, "I hope someday soon to come back on a pastoral visit to the Catholic communities in those places which I will not now be able to visit."

South Africa is home to about 3.5 million of Africa's 90 million Catholics, and most of that community here is black.

Part of the community has accepted the official explanations for the pope's choice of stops -- that there are no places large enough in Soweto to accommodate the papal Mass, that this is not a pastoral visit or a state visit, but a work of church business.

But among the dissatisfied are some members of the St. Martin's church choir in Soweto, who will be among the 2,000 singing today at the pope's outdoor Mass.

"Basically, while he's in South Africa, he's only staying in white areas," said Bongani Ngwenya, an engineer. "All foreign dignitaries who come to South Africa come to Soweto to pay their respects to the suffering of the people. The pope should not be an exception."

George Radebe, the choirmaster, described the pope's visit as "quite exciting, quite thrilling," but maintained that a visit by Pope John Paul was only what Soweto deserved. St. Martin's is (( one of 17 Catholic churches in the township.

"If Jesus Christ had come here today, would he go and dine with politicians?" asked Mr. Ngwenya. "I think he would walk right into a squatter camp."

Today's Mass will be held at a horse race track in Germiston, a white suburb on the eastern edge of Johannesburg. About 300,000 people are expected. The voices of St. Martin's choir will be among those singing in English, Afrikaans, Sotho, Tsonga, Pedi and Latin.

After the Mass, the pope is scheduled to meet with bishops and other church dignitaries at a cathedral in a part of Johannesburg that was traditionally white but which now has a racially mixed population.

That meeting is the official purpose of the pope's trip, which included stops in Cameroon and Kenya, as he closes a year-long, pan-African synod that has examined the church's role in Africa.

For many, the final meeting with church dignitaries is the session that should have been in Soweto.

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