Pope's African itinerary displeases many 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 when he slowly descended the steps of the plane that had carried him from Cameroon and accepted 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 South African President Nelson 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.

"At the beginning of my visit, I wish to pay tribute to you, Mr. President, who after being a silent and suffering 'witness' of your people's yearning for true liberation, now shoulder the burden of inspiring and challenging everyone to succeed in the task of national reconciliation and reconstruction," the pontiff said.

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

"For many years South Africans have looked forward to this day," he said. "To say the visit is long overdue is to pay tribute to your own abhorrence of the system of apartheid. You delayed your visit to this country because you viewed with disdain a system that treated God's children as lesser human beings."

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.

"When you speak of Soweto, you speak of the heart of South Africa," he said. "When the Queen [of England] came to South Africa, she came to Soweto. When John Major came, he came to Soweto. They never ignored Soweto."

"If Jesus Christ had come here today, would he go and dine with politicians?" asked Mr. Ngwenya asked. "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. It is the home of Regina Mundi, a cavernous church in the central part of the township that became known the world over as a center of the struggle against apartheid.

"It became a home for the people of Soweto," its current pastor, Father Rami, said of its role during the apartheid era. "If you were a Catholic or not a Catholic, a Christian or not a Christian, a believer or not a believer, it did not matter."

Regina Mundi was the meeting place for religious and political gatherings that often ended as police pumped tear gas into the sanctuary. The church became the symbol of religious opposition to apartheid, which took many other forms, especially in keeping parochial schools open to all races, often in defiance of government orders.

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