The long, long road

April 26, 2004|By Richard Pretorius

MAY 10 will mark the 10th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's swearing-in as the country's first freely elected president and the end of white minority rule in Africa's most economically developed country.

Anniversary stories are often the feel-good province of boosterism. But the reporters with critical eyes descending on South Africa for the commemorations will see a country that has made remarkable progress in the past decade but still has a long way to go before living up to Mr. Mandela's promise of a rainbow nation in which everyone has the same opportunity to shine.

Last summer, as I tracked my roots - my father was a South African geologist, but I grew up with my mother in Virginia - I explored a land that offers horror and hope, economic promise and abysmal poverty, a place rich in natural resources and the resiliency of the human spirit.

Perhaps a visiting Western journalist will travel with the cab driver who picked me up at the airport and kept apologizing, not so much for driving around in circles but for not being able to read a map.

As we made our way to a guest house in one of Johannesburg's more Fells Point-like neighborhoods, filled with cafes, pubs and bookstores, I thought maybe I should be apologizing to him.

Pretorius, the surname of Andreas Pretorius, who led the Boers called Voortrekkers into battle over the Zulus in 1838 and for whom the capital, Pretoria, is named, fills columns in phone books and marks business addresses and school names in South Africa. Anyone growing up a Pretorius in the 1960s and '70s would undoubtedly be associated with the oppressiveness of apartheid and the forced teaching of Afrikaans in a nation so diverse that today it recognizes 11 official languages.

The cab driver's lack of education was no doubt a product of a wicked system that among its many sins did not require black children to go to school.

His apology was one of what became daily reminders during a five-week visit that the past still stings in South Africa in much the same way the legacy of Jim Crow and segregation has in the United States.

Signs of progress - blacks in power, a growing black middle class and people of all races freely hanging out in the same pubs, malls and ballparks - are obvious. But such social integration after the sun goes down is mostly restricted by choice to areas where whites feel safe and blacks comfortable. Rarely does one see a white person walking the city streets or riding public transportation. Rarer is the non-tourist white visiting a black township or a black person hanging out in the bars and restaurants near Pretoria University or the nightlife strip of Cape Town. White flight among the young and educated has been a social and economic nightmare.

And people such as my cab driver are reminders that racial healing must take into account the damage that has been done.

Like the United States, South Africa, with a nearly 75 percent black majority, is still very segregated in many ways.

"The country has come far," said Carl Anhaeusser, a white geologist and lifelong resident of Johannesburg. "But it will take years" to right the wrongs of the past.

The streets of Johannesburg shock the senses: On many, peddlers line a dozen deep selling sodas and soap, coat hangers and cards, oranges and avocados, tires, bumpers and other car parts of dubious origin - all in an effort to survive. Unemployment hovers at 40 percent. Equal opportunity at the ballot box does not easily translate into economic empowerment.

A lesson to be told in the 10th anniversary stories is that much more international and private investment is greatly needed to create the jobs and provide the education that a large portion of the populace needs.

For years, the world business community shunned South Africa, except to profit from its vast natural resources. Now, instead of looking for the cheapest labor they can find, corporations could look to South Africans, whose gold, platinum, uranium and diamonds continue to benefit foreign industries and governments, to show with proper training that they are capable workers.

Upon becoming president, Mr. Mandela told the world that "out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all."

A decade is too short a time for that to be accomplished in South Africa, or anywhere else. But the story told of the new South Africa must be that of the illiterate middle-age cab driver and the struggling-to-survive street peddler as well as that of the rising black executive and politician.

The scars of injustice and racial oppression heal slowly.

Richard Pretorius is a Washington journalist and an adjunct journalism professor at Catholic University.

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