Small signs of change in South Africa

It was often his way in the sports office of the Johannesburg Star: When the first and toughest of the day's deadlines had been met we would relax a little and the banter would begin. Pretty soon someone would crumple up a piece of typing paper, squeeze it into a ball, and issue to challenge; another would reach for the longest printer's rule in the office. The game of the day would begin.

It might be cricket or baseball, the rules amended somewhat to allow for the limitations imposed by a desk-filled sports room. Both games were popular at the Star, but in neither were the scores ever very high. A crumpled paper ball does not fly true to course and a printer's rule makes a somewhat slender bat.

And now, after 13 years in the United States -- years spent in the news room of The Christian Science Monitor -- I was returning to say hello to old friends and see for myself what the country was like.

It was as warm and beautiful as I remembered, but I had forgotten how colorful it could be -- the jacarandas that throw a purple shroud over Pretoria and Pietermaritzburg in the spring; the flamboyants or royal poincianas that turn some Durban streets a flaming scarlet just in time for Christmas; the flower-filled private gardens of Johannesburg thriving in a climate that must be as benign as anywhere in the world; the blue, ever so blue Indian Ocean that sends a never-ending series of near perfect surfing waves rolling towards sun-drenched sands.

There were the expected changes, the spread of suburbia into what had been productive farmland when I left; the almost breathaking (and somewhat disappointing) advance of high-rise apartment blocks and hotels along hitherto unspoiled miles of beach north and south of Durban. It was the same everywhere, I was told. Building was going on at an unprecedented rate; the economy was booming and traffic appeared more congested than I had known it despite a proliferation of superhighways and gasoline prices that are double those in the US.

Then there were the unexpected changes, unexpected, at least, in the context of my experience 13 years ago. I had read of them, of course, but even so the visual impact was dramatic on someone who had found it difficult to believe they would ever come about.

It happened on the day I returned to the Star's sports room that I walked in on a baseball game. As usual the pitchers were dominant; unusual in my experience was the makeup of the teams. They were multiracial. The banter and the legpulling remained the same; relationships between the races appeared natural and easygoing. In my day we had an all-white editorial staff. Now black faces that had previously appeared in the newsroom only behind brooms are slowly turning up behind the typewriters and computer terminals as well. The all-white cafeteria has become an all-race cafeteria.

Other English language newspapers, competing for an expanding readership among blacks have similarly altered hiring practices. So have a multitude of business concerns, aided by changing public attitudes and the demands of a generally thriving economy. "We simply don't have the white manpower to meet our needs," says an executive with a multinational company. "We've got so that we don't care who does the job anymore, just as long as it gets done," another says.

Theoretically, the sky is the limit to black advancement and it remains to be seen how readily blacks will be given the training that enables them to climb the corporate ladder. But, in a significant move, the giant Anglo-American mining company recently appointed a black to its board of directors. And, an executive with Nestles says that his office has been instructed that when certain executive positions fail vacant, they have to be filled by blacks.

So while banks in an all-white suburb (rigid residential separation along racial lines remains a factor of South African life) might still have white tellers, those in the city centers boast black and white faces behind the counters. Post offices, one of the more obvious symbols of apartheid as recently as 1977, are now multiracial on both sides of the counters. The Volkskas Bank in Pretoria (a thoroughly conservative Afrikaans institution in the heart of Afrikanerdom, so to speak) has an all-black staff of tellers. Moreover, the supervisor is black as well.

"That has to be the most unbelievable change of all," comments a white South African, currently living in New York, on the Volkskas move.

In a small way, then, the American experience is being repeated here: International companies, sensitive to world pressures, feel the need to have some blacks in executive positions. But qualified blacks still are hard to find so that those few with the requisite training command impressive salaries. These same newly affluent professionals then bump into the anomaly facing all moderately wealthy blacks: They have the earning power to get quality housing that, as yet, isn't readily available to them.

"Upper middle class during the day, lower working class at night," is how one white describes the emerging black business class.

There are those who refer to these recent changes as "window dressing." But they seem more than that to me. Changes in labour laws, allowing blacks into unions are substantive, not cosmetic. So is the right of Africans to own their own homes in Soweto -- something the architects of apartheid never envisioned. While a majority of residents still cannot afford to buy their own homes, rising wages are slowly bringing the pleasure of ownership within their grasp. You can tell owner-occupied housing at a glance. They have been "prettied up" by owners effecting improvements they would never undertake on a rental unit. "Integration," as some South African whites term the present situation, never existed in any form when i left the country. and the case might be made that "window dressing" paves the way for more substantive changes in that it educates and prepares people for still further change.

Some indication of the "education" surfaced in a survey last year which showed that a slight majority of urban whites (white collar more than blue collar) would be prepared to work under a black "provided he had the necessary qualifications." Only a few years ago such a situation would have been dismissed as unthinkable.

The annual Christmas rendering of the Messiah by the Pietermaritzburg Philharmonic Society now sees black faces turning up on the stage. In my day in the chorus, there wasn't a black face in sight and it never occurred to us that there ever would be.

On the bus shelter near my sister's home, a smiling black is shown drinking a popular brand a soft drink. Black faces on advertising billboards in black areas have long been around. But in white suburbia! A decade ago it would have been deemed insulting by many. Now no one regards it as unusual.

The convenience store in the same Durban neighborhood is owned by an Indian. He doesn't and cannot own the store building. But the business and its accompanying profits are his -- another departure from the rigid apartheid of old. In a modern suburban shopping complex, an Indian-owned store operates alongside white-run businesses.

Durban's indian population, industrious, highly intelligent, and generally better educated than the African, is accepting the improved employment and business opportunities with alacrity. As one white journalist notes, "There are 20 millionaires in Durban and only three of them are white." A white salesman of Mercedes Benz cars notes with satisfaction his turnover in November -- 10 of the limousines, 9 of them to Indian businessmen.

On the other hand, not all of the improved earning power belongs to Asian and Coloreds (mixed race) groups. A cousin of mine, who managed a branch office of a major insurance company until his retirement a year ago, says that two of the top salesmen on his staff, earning 35,000 rand to 40,000 rand ($45,000 to $50, 000), were black Africans.

The stepped-up appearance of black faces on advertising billboards stems from the new affluence among urban blacks. While the disparity between white and black salaries still is wide, black incomes have risen at a much faster (300 percent) rate in recent years, far outstripping inflation. So with better incomes, blacks, mixed race, and Indians are buying to a degree that Durban's downtown has changed radically; Johannesburg somewhat less so. With few exceptions, quality department stores have moved to the suburbs. They have been replaced in the downtown areas by large American-style discount chains, prospering on the new black buying power.

But, while apartheid breaks down in some respects, it is enhanced in the Durban bus system.Buses uses to carry both black and white passengers, blacks at the back admittedly. But pressures from the central government finally forced a resisting Durban City Council to provide separate buses for the races. so on the route that serves my mother's section of town, black buses and white buses run infrequently. Sunday service for whites has stopped altogether. A majority of whites own cars but for those that don't, it's shank's mare on Sundays or stay at home. Some whites sigh for the return of "multiracial" buses. They meant better service for all.

Meanwhile, bus drivers, once white only, are drawn from all racial groups. On three separate rides I take to town the drivers are white, black, and Indian respectively. I walk back the three miles on each occasion rather than wait. It pays off because no bus overtakes me en route.

Appeals for a greater measure of goodwill among the differing racial groups in South Africa are heard more frequently now. Without goodwill, "we will never solve our problems," is a common consensus. And it does seem to me on this visit that interchanges between the races are more polite and more natural than they used to be.

At the Johannesburg airport waiting for a flight to the Eastern Transvaal lowveld is a young black, in his early 30s. He carries a briefcase, wears a black pin-striped suit, and a pair of sunglasses protrude from his breast pocket. A white businessman takes a seat alongside him and the two exchange a few pleasantries before newspapers are opened and they lapse into silence. I notice similar exchanges between women of different racial groups in a supermarket.

The point is, exchanges that would have stood out for their rarity a decade or so ago, now occur more frequently and far more naturally. Come to think of it, the very presence of a smartly dressed black, waiting for a flight to anywhere would have been rare enough to excite comment a decade ago.

In my own conversations with blacks, I have no concerns that other whites will think it odd, though the time was when I would have been less than comfortable. On the other hand, my movements have been confined largely to Johannesburg and the Natal cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The new spirit of goodwill isn't all pervasive, I am told.

A close friend of mine, an official with the ecumenical organization, Africa Enterprise, quotes a young colored man from Kimberley, visiting Pietermaritzburg for a series of seminars: "This," he said, "is liek living in another country." He was referring to the politeness and respect accorded him by whites in Natal, something he said he seldom came across in the northern Cape.

The day is not -- pushing 90 degress F. --and the humidity not far short of 100 percent, so that the least exertion leaves one as wet as a washcloth. A black man pauses in the shade of a tree to mop his brow as I walk by. I make a disparaging remark about the weather and he breaks into a broad grin as he responds in kind.

On another occasion my train has just pulled in at a station and I search for its name. A black man, sitting on the platform notices my need, takes a ball point pen from his pocket and writes on the palm of his hand. A moment later he holds his hand up to the window of my compartment with the name of the station printed clearly on it.

These incidents seem to indicate that, while discontent with government race policies may be widespread, there still is a fund of black goodwill that surfaces in the presence of white courtesy.

In a more exclusive neighborhood near Johannesburg, we are surprised to find a cousin washing the dishes while the live-in maid watches TV. It doesn't happen every day, only on those evenings "Heidi" is showing. The maid loves the program, "But I can't stand it," the cousin explains.

Meanwhile, the maid in every home, automatic with white families at one time, is becoming less so in labor-short Johannesburg and some other cities. Friends of ours get one day of housework in exchange for a room, breakfast, and dinner.On the other days, the maid hires herself out to others in the neighborhood for straight wages (approximately $14 a day plus lunch).

Domestic servants are a part of middle-class life everywhere in Africa, whatever the skin coloring of the home owner. So I'm not surprised on several rides through a Colored (mixed race) suburb near Johannesburg to notice numbers of black women polishing and cleaning while keeping one eye on the children. A buoyant economy has drawn colored women into the labour force as typists, file clerks, counter hands, etc., so they employ black women principally to look after the children. Significantly, the bulk of domestic servants are middle-aged and older, suggesting that alternate work opportunities now exist for younger black women as well.

Just before emigrating to the US, I took an organized bus tour of Soweto, the vast African "city" southwest of Johannesburg. There were the smallest beginnings, then, of middle-class suburbs. On a repeat trip this time, middle-class sections are expanding quite rapidly. Some of the housing is sponsored by major companies needing good housing for their better-paid black employees.

Soweto boasted just one gasoline station on my previous visit; now it has 23. Other signs of the times: Auto junkyards have appeared where none were obvious before, and many of the pre-school children who wave at the bus are eating popsicles or other candies.

A local clean-up program has reduced much of the litter, but the overall appearance of Soweto still is one of shabbiness. The bulk of the Soweto housing remains indifferent to downright poor by Western standards. Even so, the Swedish tourist sitting next to me shakes his head and comments: "This is not like they show it on television."

He had seen a documentary on South Africa in Sweden a month or two before embarking on this visit (his second to South Africa, the last in the 1950s). The impression given was one of total poverty. While the worst of the housing was prominently featured, the newer, improved areas were excluded; while low wages were stressed, no mention was made that the average house rental in Soweto is 25 rand ($32.50) a month; that smaller new houses (two bedrooms, kitchen, dining-livingroom, and tiled bath) were selling for between ($8,000 and $10,000, full-sized for between $25,000 and $30,000, and older substandard units for between $1,000 and $2,500.

I mention this visitor's comments to a fellow journalist whose editorials leave no doubt that he is totally opposed to apartheid. "As if we're not bad enough," he says a little ruefully, "the overseas media so often has to portray us worse than we are."

His comment reflects a conviction among a majority of white South Aficans that while the overseas press readily reports the negative aspects of South African society, it is often blind to any positive signs. The strongly held view is that media critics of South Africa are image conscious, afraid that any favorable comment, no matter how valid, on white actions would be damaging to their reputations. Stringers and freelance journalists, many of them South Africans, are also well aware of what type of copy is most readily bought by editors overseas.

On the other hand, Pretoria frequently perplexes even government supporters. Just as I am beginning to feel good about the improvements I see in the land, several of the Argus group's black-run newspapers are banned. They very officials who complain of bad press hand the media one of the most image-damaging stories imaginable. The reporter who did not leap on such a story would, justifiably, be accused of bias in Pretoria's direction.

It all seems so pointless, too. Closing the avenues for overt black political commentary channels it into the more extremist underground press with potentially far more damaging consequences. "That much should be obvious even to a primary [elementary] school kid," says a English speaker who describes himself as a "lukewarm" government supporter.

Meanwhile, tourism to South Africa reached all-time highs in 1979 and 1980. Most abundant, by far, are British visitors (118,000 in 1979) followed by Americans (43,588). Close behind, in third place, are the West Germans (41,461 ).

A Markinor survey, released just before Christmas, suggest that blacks are more optimistic about their futures now than they were a year ago. Income has increased dramatically in the urban area and the level of satisfaction has risen accordingly. In contrast, whites reportedly are "less optimistic, and uncertain about the future both economically and politically."

A breakdown of white responses to the survey is interesting, however. Urban whites remain reasonably optimistic. English-speaking satisfaction with government performance has even risen somewhat. In contrast, plattelanders (rural whites) are losing confidence in the government. What outsiders frequently see as a rigidly right-wing Botha government, rural whites here view as disquietingly liberal and likely to compromise white security.

For the most part, white South Africans are aware of overseas calls for economic sanctions to pressure Pretoria into more speedy changes. They know, however, that apart from gold which everyone still seems to want, the country still has an ace or two in its hand. One is its agricultural capacity.

With only 3.5 percent of the land area in Africa, South Africa accounts for 33 percent of the continent's agricultural output. It is one of only six net food exporting nations in the world. Moreover, a major portion of its food exports go to independent black states in Africa.

"More maize [corn] for Zambia" has become a familiar headline in the agricultural press in recent years. South Africans suggest that the rest of the world has neither the capacity nor the willingness to prevent the resulting starvation should the country's food production fail in the face of sanctions. As it is, more than a million reportedly starved to death in Africa last year.

Meanwhile, a good many other South African products make it into third-world countries through the back door so to speak. A candy manufacturer shows me a products coming off the line, one stream with "Made in South Africa" clearly printed on the label; another with no mention of the country of origin. This backdoor trade works in reverse, too. Soccer balls and field hockey sticks, made in Pakistan, are officially exported to Angola and the accompanying paperwork shows this clearly. But they are offloaded directly in durban harbor for distribution and sale throughout South Africa.

A second cousin of mine manages a farm down in the undulating and picturesque Eastern Transvaal. In his spare time, he plays just about every sport you can name. His ancestry is English and Swiss and he's Viking blond which makes him stand out all the more in the otherwise all-black soccer side he plays for.

When he was born a little over two decades ago, no one could have envisioned that whites and blacks would have played alongside each other on the sports field. When I left South Africa, the debate on whether to allow white and black South Africans to play alongside each other on overseas visits was still in its beginning stages. Multiracial sport at home was not being countenanced at all.

That the entry of blacks into the spotlight provided by professional sports had done much to bring the races together in the US was understood in South Africa and the ultraconservatives wanted none of it for that every reason. Its threat to apartheid was all too real.

And yet, today the races mix in the sports arena the way they do nowhere else. A black player was named to the international rugby squad for the first time recently.

A veteran track and field writer in Johannesburg notes the irony of the present situation: "Because of apartheid, few South African teams may compete in international events. Yet today, if we were to select a 10-man cross-country or road running squad, eight of them would be black."

South African teams in hang gliding, yachting, and surf life saving, all sports attracting as yet little black interest, toured in the US and Europe during the past 12 months. In contrast, the banning of South African teams from international competition is most vigorously prosecuted in those sports where blacks would be well represented or even predominate -- soccer, cricket, and track.

The improvements, then, that stand out to me because of my long absence from the country leave me feeling optimistic about South Africa's future. But I still have many nagging concerns. The banning of the black newspapers sticks in my craw. It shows that while the government slowly hands out improvements, it can and will still arbitrarily remove them. The freedom of blacks to move at will around the country still is lacking; the security laws granting police powers that cannot be challenged in court and the freedom to act without exposure by the press, are chillingly excessive. The extreme right wing, among government supporters, may have been checked a little, but it is by no means manacled.

Then there are the actions of the petty bureacrats of apartheid. While men of good sense at the top might institute improvements, their implementation is frequently left to the bureacrats whose foot dragging is well known. Apartheid, with its accompanying maze of red tape, created many of the jobs for these people. Changes for the better not only threaten ideologically, they do so economically as well.

White thinking has undergond a dramatic change in the past decade. When I left South Africa, most admitted that the country would someday have to adjust to a multiracial future. But the day of reckoning seemed so far off that it prompted little immediate concern. Now, says a friend, "we are all concerned for the future. We think about it often.We know change is coming, that it is gethering momentum, and that it is irreversible."

The optimists among whites -- and there are a good many --upheaval. But a former colleague of mine does not hide his contempt for that view. "The Afrikaner will concede everything but his right to the final say. He will never give that up without a fight."

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