Standing Behind S. African Reform

Family of British descent does not feel threatened by gradual move toward black majority rule

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Bannatynes, a white South African family of British descent, have carved out a niche for themselves in this conservative industrial town despite their relatively liberal views. ``It would take more than a revolt to get rid of me,'' says David Bannatyne, a second generation South African who has no intention of bailing out when the going gets tough.

``I think eventually things will be fine in this country,'' he says. ``But there will be some rough patches on the way.''

Mr. Bannatyne, a building contractor who grew up in Witbank and was educated in Pretoria, looks to the future with hope despite the political violence and turmoil of the past year.

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``I think in four or five years time the people who queued to emigrate to Australia and Israel will be coming back again,'' he says.

Liberal values

The Bannatynes live with their three young sons in a comfortable suburban home with an enclosed garden and swimming pool and two lively Staffordshire bull terriers. Their domestic worker Emily, a Zulu woman who has worked for them for most of their married lives, is considered part of the family.

Their lifestyle and values are similar to most English-speaking South Africans who populate the leafy and well-groomed neighborhoods surrounding the cities and larger towns.

They enjoy an active social life that has centered around David's participation in the local chapter of the Round Table, a service organization whose projects benefit the needy on both sides of the color line.

To an outsider, they appear to occupy a diminishing space between a reactionary white minority and a restive black majority eager to taste the fruits of the ``new South Africa.''

Yet they seem to feel more secure than many liberal whites in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg, perhaps because they are more directly in touch with the opposing camps.

Witbank, situated about 80 miles east of Johannesburg, lies at the center of South Africa's coal-producing and power-generating complex. Heavy pollution makes for a harsh physical environment.

There are 32 coal mines in the district and nine thermal coal-fired power stations - the biggest complex of its kind in the world.

Witbank's white population of about 45,000 has a high proportion of contract employees who come to work at the massive Highveld Steel and Vanadium plant. The population of some 50,000 black workers keeps the wheels of industry turning.

The momentous political events of the past year have meant tougher times.

David Bannatyne's construction business has been hard hit by the turmoil and boycotts in the black community. On some days only two or three of his 20 workers have turned up for work. One worker was killed in political violence. A rising crime wave has also taken its toll.

``It's been a very bad year,'' says Bannatyne, an unpretentious man who speaks his mind. ``But I don't want to overstate it. We made a living and the kids got Christmas presents.''

David's day starts at 6 a.m. He takes his three sons (including one not pictured here) to school and is at the office by 7 a.m. to direct his black workers to various building projects.

His main passion is fishing with artificial lures - something he is able to do frequently in the Witbank Lake. He combines this with a wider love for nature and the environment and is a keen conservationist.

Last year, Lorna and David went on a memorable holiday to Hong Kong.

``What really woke us up in the East was the power of free enterprise,'' he says. Bannatyne believes that the South African economy is robust enough to resolve racial disparities without resorting to nationalization.

``Closing of the wealth gap is fine as long as you have free enterprise,'' he says.

He says he is sometimes uncomfortable about the low wages he pays his black workers but insists that he is providing jobs to people who would otherwise be languishing in impoverished tribal homelands.

Reform, not revolution

Bannatyne is encouraged by the program of political liberalization initiated by President Frederik de Klerk and says he does not feel threatened by the prospect of gradual progress toward black rule.

``As long as the government continues moving in the the right direction I am confident about the future,'' he says.

These views set him apart from the majority of whites in Witbank - mainly Dutch-descended Afrikaners - who support the right-wing Conservative Party and oppose Mr. De Klerk's reforms.

The Bannatynes are supporters of the liberal Democratic Party. Lorna was a party organizer in the 1989 ballot. But the ruling National Party has lost to the Conservatives in Witbank's last two electoral contests.

A future for liberals?

In the 1989 ballot here, the Democratic Party polled only 900 votes out of some 16,000 votes, but the party made substantial gains in the country's main metropolitan areas. De Klerk has moved rapidly to implement policies the Democratic Party has been advocating for years.

``From my point of view it didn't really matter who did it as long as it was done,'' says Lorna Bannatyne. ``I think the Democrats played a big role in getting De Klerk to move.''

Lorna, although affected by her husband's optimism, is slightly less sanguine about the future. ``I am not pessimistic, but it is not nice living with the violence,'' she says. ``It creates an uncertainty and fear.''

Educated at a Roman Catholic convent in Witbank, Lorna is a vibrant person with a keen interest in what is going on around her. She is more passionate about politics than her husband and tends to have the final say.

``The main problem we face is education,'' she says. ``We kept people down for too long and it is costing the country a fortune now.''

David sees the current relationship between the African National Congress and the government as a necessary phase on the way to an alliance between President De Klerk and the Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

``I am sure De Klerk and Buthelezi have reached an understanding about the future,'' he says.

``De Klerk is a very shrewd politician. I would have no difficulty living under a government headed by Buthelezi. ... The only thing that would worry me was if I did not have enough work to feed my family.''

``But I believe in De Klerk,'' says Bannatyne. ``The world is already lifting sanctions and we have only begun to scratch the surface of apartheid. ... That's because they believe that De Klerk is going to do what he says.''

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