Johannesburg — There was a problem with the Pretoria suburb's newest office complex: a brick wall on the edge of a parking lot that encroached on the site. The problem was not particularly South African.
The solution was.
Early one morning, a group of black workers arrived. Brick by painstakingly preserved brick, hour by hour, they began disassembling the wall. They placed the bricks in neat piles. Then, they began the job's second stage: reusing the old bricks in the new building.
``This taught me something fundamental about South Africa and its economy,'' recalls a foreign businessman who watched from his nearby office:
``Here, blacks are cheaper than bricks.''
It is a realization most blacks in the turbulent urban townships come to early, and it causes two things above all in them. The first is a burning anger. The second is an instinct to keep that anger inside most of the time: blacks are too cheap, jobs too scarce, and whites (who hand out jobs, hire blacks, and control levers of state power) too powerful.
The equation dehumanizes. It has left the overwhelming majority of blacks - whether young activist or their more cautious parents - united in one single political urge: to gain a release from their powerlessness.
The spoils of power
To some, this means forcing an end to white government, no matter how many years and deaths that may take, no matter how many more cycles of exploding black anger and reasserted white power may intervene.
To many more, it means a system where the spoils of power - the whites' gold earnings, suburban houses, swimming pools - are spread to the blacks who comprise more than three quarters of South Africa's population.
To increasingly few - at least to virtually none among the many dozens of blacks of all ages and political persuasions I got to know here - does it mean the right to ride in ``white'' buses, use ``white'' bathrooms, or attend (recently desegregated) ``white'' movie theaters. This, a main focus of recent government reform, seems to most present-day blacks the fine print of apartheid.
Although periods of black unrest - erupting in 1960, 1976, and most recently 1984 - have been coming at gradually closer intervals, the single most powerful political instinct for most blacks is to keep anger inside.
One evening a few months ago, Johannesburg's electricity suddenly failed - with whites already home in the suburbs, and tens of thousands of blacks still waiting for commuter minibuses back to their townships. For several hours the city was without lights, without burglar alarms, and for that matter, without any visibly beefed up police presence. But there was not a single incident of looting.
Fear helps breed in blacks a reluctance to rebel, according to the country's foremost historian on black politics, Tom Lodge of Witwatersrand University. ``Particularly since the state of emergency, only the foolhardy resist.''
But psychology, too, is at work. Blacks have developed a talent under apartheid for what the profession terms ``learned helplessness,'' an acceptance of the white-fostered idea that blacks are (or should be) passive, backward, inferior.
Economic and political calculations also play their part. Many blacks, as the government repeatedly assures its white constituents, want no part of a revolution.
These blacks may not like being ``cheaper than bricks,'' but they have little trouble calculating the problems with the alternative: unemployment, which rages at levels of more than 50 percent in some townships. Made newly aware by an 18-month-old state of emergency that black unrest has not visibly dented Afrikaner supremacy, they tend to see ``reform'' as the one practical road away from apartheid.
In the squalid square mile of black township called Alexandra, bordering north Johannesburg's poshest white suburbs, a group of blacks munched sandwiches and talked politics on the day before this year's whites-only election. Asked who they would vote for if they could vote, some said, ``P.W. Botha.''
Their reasoning was that the South African President was indeed making some changes, and that eventual black government might in any case, given historic tribal differences, simply replace white oppression with black.
Resentment below the surface
Yet, black anger is no less widespread for being largely hidden. After endorsing Mr. Botha for President, one Alexandran added, ``I would not really mind being ruled by a white... If I could have a good life, if oppression were gone, if I had my rightful part of the country in which I was born, then it wouldn't matter who was in charge.''
Many thousands of nominally ``moderate'' blacks did participate in the unrest of 1985 and 1986, and many continue to boycott payment of township rents. Even in nominally apolitical blacks, the urge for a release from powerlessness surfaces - unexpectedly, repeatedly.
Cynthia Ngcawuzele is a live-in maid for a politically liberal white family.
She smiled obligingly as her boss, an insurance executive, told me that ``she was like one of the family,'' how he and his wife would always keep part of the family dinner for her to eat afterward, and how they'd opened a bank account where she could set aside part of her salary for the future.
Once out of her boss's earshot, Mrs. Ngcawuzele said, ``The master and madam treat me not good. Every morning, I must wake up at six o'clock, seven days a week, even on my day off, to put breakfast on the table. ... At night, I must stay with the children. ... I am not allowed to sleep in case something happens to the young ones. And many times the master and madam don't come home until one-thirty or two in the morning!''
Moses is a Soweto black who works as a driver for a Johannesburg Ford dealer. Polite and distant when our paths crossed outside a municipal car-inspection facility, he turned talkative when my accent revealed I was not South African.
How are things in the township, I asked. ``Much better. There has been too much violence. We are all tired of this.'' But, he added, the rent boycott is still going strong. And he - for one - hoped it would stay strong.
``It is shameful, shameful that we would pay for these matchboxes that they tell us are homes!'' said Moses.
Susan is a different sort of black. An office worker married to a black executive, she is part of the ``middle class,'' which the South African government hopes to coopt to the cause of political stability through reform.
I met her shortly after arriving in Johannesburg, at a time when state television was airing a milestone program called Siyafunda - ``We are learning'' - to teach whites the rudiments of Zulu.
``Sawubona,'' I greeted her. (Hello, in Zulu.) Anger flared in her eyes. ``Siyafunda,'' she replied with a derisive chuckle, indicating she assumed I had learned my Zulu from the TV program.
``How did you guess?'' I chuckled back selfconsciously. Then, I tried to probe her anger. Was Siyafunda a bad idea?
``It is an insult!'' she replied. ``If the televison really wants to show how sensitive they are to blacks, why not air a show teaching French or something: a show that we could benefit from, to advance ourselves?''
Leslie Kheshwa, now in his 40s and working as a ``delivery boy'' for a downtown Johannesburg florist, is another man whom the government presumably would like to have aboard the ``reform'' process. In a sense, he seems an ideal candidate. A gentle person, Mr. Kheshwa believes in building on good wherever he finds it. ``There have been changes under Botha,'' he says. ``They have repealed the Immorality Act [barring interracial marriage], and the pass laws. ...''
But in Kheshwa, too, anger surfaces unexpectedly.
Born in Alexandra - a rare township where, until apartheid's lawgivers intervened, blacks were allowed ``freehold'' ownership of their land - he was among tens of thousands summarily moved to a new township called Tembisa, about 10 miles further out.
``Alexandra was a poor place, but it was close to where we worked. We could walk!'' Kheshwa recalls. ``Not like now, where I spend an hour each morning on the train.''
``When we arrived in Tembisa, there was nothing. The kitchen of our four-room house had a real floor. But the other rooms were dirt - with grass up to our knees! Things have improved since then. It is not a bad house. But you know, we still do not have electricity.''
Distrust of Pretoria's `reform'
Mandla Mthembu simply doesn't believe the present government of South Africa will ever make things right. Now almost 31, he is a tall man with bespectacled eyes that often crinkle in self-deprecating laughter.
When he entered his teens, he and his mother and sister moved from their shared ``maid's room'' in a Johannesburg backyard to Soweto. In those days, he had no thoughts of politics.
That, Mr. Mthembu recalls, began to change when he was about sixteen. ``In 1972, something called the Christian Students Movement began to take root, all over the country. The interest was religion. So even the government encouraged it.
``But the problem,'' he says, ``was that even if you discussed things from a Christian point of view, there were questions about our lives that were difficult for us to answer. Political questions. That, I guess, is how the whole thing started brewing.''
In 1976, with the Soweto student rebellion, the ``brew'' bubbled over. By this time, Mthembu was a journalist for the city's crusading liberal journal, the now defunct Rand Daily Mail. ``I had wanted to be a scientist,'' he recalls. ``But obviously, the money wasn't there. And, as a journalist, Soweto had a very profound effect on me.''
In 1981, he began working for the outlawed African National Congress.
Mthembu first major ANC action turned out to be his last for many years. Responding to the government's establishment of separate state television stations for blacks - ``a powerful propaganda tool, we felt'' - he joined other activists in a ``cell'' planning to set an explosive charge at television headquarters. In what has become a routine feature of ANC activity here, one of the ``activists'' was in fact an informer.
The cell - nearly two dozen activists, including a white woman - was picked up, tried, convicted. Mthembu was imprisoned on Robben Island - the jail off Cape Town where ANC leader Nelson Mandela was held until his transfer in the early 1980s to Cape Town, proper, and where dozens of black-activist leaders are still kept. Mandla was released earlier this year.
Does he still support the cause for which he was jailed? ``More so,'' he replies without hesitation.
He has emerged, he says, more realistic about the hopes for an early end to white-minority domination - feeling that during the present unrest, as in 1976, blacks have proven they still lack the organization for a final push toward power. ``I am more realistic,'' he says, ``but not more pessimistic. ...''
Like many in the ANC - and the more recently formed, still unbanned, multiracial United Democratic Front - Mthembu is quick to add that he bears no hatred for white South Africans as a race. ``After all, a white woman, a comrade of ours, was jailed with us.''
John Kani shares Mthembu's ``nonracial'' approach. Mr. Kani is a man who fights with his words and emotions, not bullets.
South Africa's leading black actor, Kani won a Tony Award in 1975 for his role in the Broadway performance of Athol Fugard's ``Sizwe Bani is Dead.'' More recently, he has played the lead in an unabashedly political production of Othello to packed, mostly white Johannesburg audiences.
Over tea early in the play's run, he said, ``I consider myself a patriot, a combatant ... whose first responsibility is to liberate my people.'' Then turning to his country's future, he issued an eloquent restatement of ANC ideology: ``We must find a way to live together, without racism, in this land. We Whites and Blacks have so much to gain from this, we have so much that could bring us together. ...''
Asked what he and his white compatriots had in common, however, he paused. Then, he replied quietly, ``Not much, really. I think whites here are only trying to hang on to their good life.''
Second in a three-part series. Next: What do South Africa and the Soviet Union have in common?