South African whites work to break down black-white barriers

The other day a small group of South Africans, black and white, met in Soweto to celebrate the completion of a new school library.

But, as rare as libraries are in this huge black township, it was not the books that made the occasion special. Rather, it was the display of friendship, respect, and mutual appreciation across the color line that made the event memorable.

The library is the latest example of work carried out by a small but unusual group called Isongo. The organization is one of many white volunteer associations trying to assist South Africa's deprived black communities. But it is one of only a very few such organizations to have gained real acceptance by blacks.

''We're not just interested in the success of a project. We are interested in continuous, sustained, caring involvement,'' says its founder, Jean Graham.

That philosophy has won Isongo many friends in the black and Colored (mixed race descent) communities near Johannesburg, where the association concentrates its work. Some projects have floundered; others have blossomed. But behind them all is what Mrs. Graham sees as an expanding spiral of ''nonracial'' one-to-one relationships that to her are more needed in South Africa than the brick-and-mortar projects.

Mrs. Graham was recently given an award for her work in fostering better human relations by the Soweto YMCA. Explaining the award - unusual in that it went to a white - YMCA general secretary Simon Dube said of Isongo: ''It's not so much an organization for handouts. It makes organizations and people realize they can do things on their own. It brings a bridge where people can cross over to each other.''

The core of Isongo is a small group of white women who have worked voluntarily on a host of projects, including a day-care center for Colored children, self-help activities for disabled blacks, an outreach program for bringing black and white students together, and the new library at Namedi High School.

Isongo was founded in 1977. It takes its name from the Zulu word for centipede, suggesting the goal of ''spiraling'' relationships.

One of the features that sets Isongo apart from other charitable groups is the low priority it gives to simply providing funding for projects. It does tap private donations, but the organization's emphasis is on developing a solid relationship between itself and the groups and individuals it works with.

''Donations alone are often almost without any value at all. There must be relationship, otherwise the exercise is sterile and useless,'' says Mrs. Graham.

Providing financial handouts with little else is a common trap that many white organizations have fallen into in South Africa, she adds. Such an approach earns well-meaning groups reputations of being ''elitist'' and ''do-gooders'' by blacks. These groups generally do not gain enough acceptance in the black community to have lasting impact, she says.

''I've seen programs initiated from the outside fall flat because the community was not receptive,'' says an official at the South African Institute of Race Relations. ''Isongo has developed an image of working for blacks, because they have set up such extraordinary relationships.''

Another feature of Isongo's special acceptance is that it tries to continue relationships long after projects are complete. This also helps it determine the real community needs.

The new library at Namedi was a by-product of Isongo's continuing activities in Soweto, Mrs. Graham says. Over a year ago, some Namedi teachers visited a nearby church where Isongo was helping to operate a soup kitchen and invited the Isongo members to visit the school. Out of that blossomed a friendship between the school and Isongo that resulted in part in the work at the library.

Now, two Isongo members work in the Namedi library one day a week, helping to organize some 2,000 volumes that have been donated by private sources.

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