The slow, painful path from bomber to builder

After aparteid: A former imprisoned rebel becomes mayor of a district that encompasses Johannesburg's richest suburb and one of its poorest.

January 18, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,sun foreign staff

SANDTON, South Africa -- In the dark, bloody days of the struggle against apart-heid, Justice Hlomuka Ngidi taught his people to blow up buildings and bridges.

"We used to say, 'You can construct your building in 10 years; we can destroy it in 3 seconds,'" recalls the former freedom fighter, who was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for five years on a charge of treason against South Africa's apartheid regime.

Now, he is the black mayor of a district that includes one of the richest white suburbs in all of Africa. He has a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz, an armed guard at his side and a home in an expensive white area, where he is not particularly welcome.

"I would love to embrace the whites and have them embrace me," says Ngidi, 44. "It's painful and slow."

It is not easy for a man who was tortured by whites to forgive them, and whites are among his constituents.

"I hate those who supported the [apartheid] system," he says. "We would have long ago achieved our liberation if there were not whites who collaborated, whites who allowed the machinery to kill people."

But he doesn't dwell on the punishments inflicted upon him by the former authorities.

"I have just forgotten them," he says. "I would not be able to grow if I could hold grudges against those people. I do not know whether they are dead or alive."

Dual goals

As mayor, Ngidi spends his days trying to promote the twin goals of social transition and racial reconciliation among a constituency that has been challenged by both in the years since apartheid crumbled. Instead of blowing up bridges, he finds himself trying to build them across the racial, social and economic chasm that divides the new South Africa.

Sandton, with its grand homes and leafy gardens, is the richest suburb of Johannesburg; neighboring Alexandra township, with its tin shacks and baked clay yards, is one of the poorest. Both are in Ngidi's sprawling mayoral constituency, Johannesburg's Eastern Metropolitan Local Council.

The wealthiest of his white constituents live on spacious lots, their luxury homes cleaned and their gardens tended by blacks. They shop in sparkling malls and work in marble-and-glass office buildings. For those who can afford it, Sandton has become the address of choice.

The impoverished blacks, many unemployed and penniless, struggle to survive in downtown tenements or in the hovels and hostels of Alexandra township.

Alexandra is burning

Ngidi sees a symbiotic relationship between the two communities: The white owns a thatch-roofed home, the black a tin-roofed house that catches fire and threatens his neighbor's property. Clearly, he says, it is in the white's interest to douse the flames.

"Alexandra is just like that," he says. "It's burning. We need the hose pipe of the whites to help us."

Implicit in his analogy is the idea that unless the whites help the blacks, their elegant homes, though sequestered behind high walls, electric fences and burglar bars, could also go up in flames.

"There is always stress in this area where the poor are living side by side with the rich," Ngidi says. "I have to give hope to the people of Alexandra without disturbing the lifestyles of those living across the highway in Sandton. We still depend on the white community."

'Dark City'

It is a community far removed from Ngidi's experience. Most of his life, he has been at home in the narrow streets of Alexandra township, 3 square miles with an estimated 600,000 residents, many living in appalling conditions.

As a child of the township, he knew little of Sandton. It was mostly farmland, and he ventured there only to swim in the river.

"We had no swimming baths in Alex," he says, noting that Sandton began to develop into a major suburb in the late 1960s.

In Ngidi's youth, Alexandra was called "Dark City" because there were no street lights and "Young Chicago" because gangsters ruled the streets. "Alex," as the township is popularly known, now has electricity but is a high-crime area where few whites dare to venture.

"Why is Alex like this?" Ngidi wonders aloud. "Why didn't [the whites] support Alex? They are neighbors. The rich and poor live side by side. They [whites] don't want to pay for the substructures. It is unacceptable."

ANC outlaw

His father, a teacher, died when Ngidi was 5, and his mother, a nurse, went to work in the diamond-mining town of Kimberley, leaving him with an uncle.

Ngidi became active politically at his high school in Durban. The school had produced a president of the then-outlawed African National Congress, awakening his interest. Ngidi joined the ANC in 1976, after a friend was shot and killed by police during the student uprising that galvanized the struggle against apartheid.

"That really told me I should join the MK," the party's armed wing, he recalls.

Close to his roots

Ngidi's mother has returned to the family home in Alexandra. A faded photograph on the living room wall is the only reminder of a father Ngidi hardly knew.

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