South Africa moves ahead, but haltingly

Politics: Apartheid is gone, but economic inequities keep blacks and whites apart.

April 04, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VENTERSDORP, South Africa - Meshack Mbambalala grew up in this farming community understanding that being black meant "there were lines I could not cross," he says. The son of farm laborers, he played rugby and soccer with the white farm boys but was forbidden from eating at the same table with them.

He used separate entrances at the post office and grocery stores. At dusk, a siren blared, warning blacks to vacate the white neighborhoods and return to their dreary township, or face arrest.

But Mbambalala knows as well as anyone that South Africa is a country of dizzying changes.

Ten years after the demise of apartheid - the system of racial oppression and segregation that made such injustices possible - Mbambalala is now known to Ventersdorp's residents as "Mr. Mayor."

The shy, slim 34-year-old former shack dweller is serving his second term as leader of this community of 15,000 blacks and 2,000 whites.

"I want to see Ventersdorp leading the way forward," says Mbambalala, sitting in a large executive's chair in the mayor's office. "In my life I want to see the total integration of society."

Mbambalala's dreams would have sounded ridiculous in 1994. Ventersdorp was the center for the Afrikaner right-wing movement, a band of pistol-toting toughs who threatened to derail South Africa's efforts to establish a democracy, terrorizing the nation with bombings and mustering an army for a civil war.

The bloody conflict everyone feared never materialized. Instead of following the violent path of Rwanda or Yugoslavia, South Africa set to work reinventing itself, dismantling 400 years of white colonialism and segregation and creating a new, nonracial democracy.

Ten years on, South Africa has abolished all of its race-based laws. It has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and has provided millions of poor families access to fresh water, electricity and housing. On April 14, South Africa will hold its third fully democratic general election.

`Little has changed'

Although South Africa didn't come apart, it hasn't come together, either.

South Africa remains divided in every imaginable way. Millions of black South Africans live in grinding poverty, AIDS threatens the lives of nearly one in every four adults, and unemployment is growing. Although South Africa boasts a growing black middle class, the white minority still holds the bulk of the country's land and wealth.

"For many black South Africans very little has changed: The same people still own the big houses; they still hold down the best jobs; they still drive the fancy cars that speed - unseeing - past the black informal settlements that line our First World highways," said F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, speaking in Johannesburg last month.

Whites, meanwhile, complain about the country's spiraling crime rate and say affirmative action programs are making them victims of reverse discrimination. Frustrated, many white families leave South Africa each year.

In Ventersdorp, Mayor Mbambalala's dream of integration may no longer sound ridiculous, but it is not a reality.

Ventersdorp is a two-hour drive west of Johannesburg along route N14, a two-lane highway that runs deep into a fertile landscape of corn and sunflower fields. A row of grain silos dominates the town's skyline, a reminder of the agricultural riches that brought white settlers here more than a century ago.

At first glance, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that apartheid never ended. White residents own the pharmacy, the law office, the grocery stores and most other small businesses in town. Whites live in sprawling ranch-style homes with swimming pools and flower gardens, and commute to work by car.

Blacks clean the white families' homes, weed their gardens and till the soil on their farms. Many continue to address white men as "baas" and white women as "madam." They travel to work on foot from their homes in Tshing Township, where 4,500 families live in a crush of metal shacks, crooked streets and simple brick houses on the outskirts of town.


But in Tshing, the sweeping changes of the past decade are clearly visible. The local government built more than 1,800 homes to replace the township's corrugated shacks, and 2,000 more homes are under construction.

Families that once fetched water from nearby streams, lighted their homes with candles and relieved themselves in buckets have access to water, electricity and toilets. Last year, the township opened its first public library. Construction of a public park and soccer field is under way.

As he walks through the township's dusty streets, Mayor Mbambalala says, "happiness fills my eyes" at the sight of the construction projects.

Ventersdorp's white residents, however, who pay the bulk of the town's taxes, say these development projects are coming at the expense of road and park maintenance in their neighborhoods, discouraging desperately needed investment.

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