US and South Africa: the language of equality

IN the Star, a South African newspaper, an ad began, ``Learn a Black Language!'' With a black language, the ad went on to argue persuasively, a businessman can talk to his clerks, a housewife can talk to her maid, an artisan can talk to his laborers, and a homeowner can talk to his gardener. Such are the daily benefits for whites who speak a black language in South Africa. Looking down the list of black languages that the course offered, I discovered one that I knew: Sesotho. It is the language of the people of Lesotho, a small, black-ruled country, surrounded by South Africa, where from 1983 through 1985 I was a Peace Corps teacher in a rural school.

In Lesotho I experienced the daily benefits of speaking a black language. But they were not the benefits that the ad described. I did not speak Sesotho to give orders to servants; I spoke it with my neighbors and friends.

I was reassured by this difference between white South Africans and me. When I met white South Africans, I was struck primarily by our similarities. With them I felt an ease of communication, an understanding -- as between people from similar cultures. Like me, most white South Africans are middle class, college educated, and fond of traveling in Europe. Masters of their highly technological society, they like fast cars and color televisions.

I was appalled by their racism. But I found it disturbingly familiar, though different in degree, from the racism of some white Americans. Many white South Africans exude the arrogance of power and wealth, and it seemed so familiar that it made me afraid of myself.

As white South Africans like to observe, US history includes many acts similar to what Americans now fault them for. With a rationale of manifest destiny, Americans forced native Americans onto rugged and barren reservation lands. The signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, as did generations of their descendants.

White Americans resemble white South Africans further in strengths of which both are justifiably proud: entrepreneurship, technological achievement, and a fierce individualism.

White South Africans are cut from the same cloth as we white Americans are. Hence both the fervor with which American students and conscientious citizens oppose them, and the lingering sympathy President Reagan feels for them.

This cultural and political rapport has been eagerly acknowledged by South African whites during Mr. Reagan's administration. Their first response on hearing that I was an American was invariably to compliment me on our fine President. American-style jeans, eagles, and cowboy hats are flaunted from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg. South African radio advertises an astonishing number of products as being like those ``in America, where a man gets what he wants.''

Although most South African whites have lived for several generations at the tip of the African continent, they clearly feel threatened there, hating all their neighbors for several thousand miles in each direction. President Reagan's policy of constructive engagement has given them reassurance and support in their self-conceived exile.

When my white South African acquaintances learned that I was living and teaching at an all-black school in Lesotho, not as a member of a radical religious organization but as a United States government employee, they were taken aback. They had conveniently forgotten the American civil rights movement, our sometimes genuine belief in the equality of man, our laws guaranteeing equal opportunity, voting rights, and open housing. But then, why remember them? Wasn't our highly popular Reagan administration working to modify or overturn many of those laws?

Black Africans are the ones who remember our civil rights movement, and many of them cherish it. The teachers at my school idolized Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, even Stevie Wonder and Muhammad Ali. These famous and powerful black Americans had spoken out for justice for all, and had been heard. The black Africans I knew in Lesotho considered the achievement of black Americans the most powerful symbol of freedom.

I hesitated to tell them that in the United States blacks generally still do not live as the equals of whites, in terms of earning power, political representation, or dispensed justice. It is not the fault of their heroes that we are not yet the nation that we aspire to be, and that in spite of my Peace Corps training I am not the person I aspire to be, either -- one who could relate as easily to their nontechnological, family-oriented society as to a society of ambitious white supremacists.

Never mind, they know it now. Bishop Desmond Tutu, whom my friends also admire, told them a few things about America after Reagan's speech last month. In the eyes of black Africans US support for the Pretoria government has made a mockery of American ideals of equality and freedom. Americans have perversely fostered black communism in South Africa by betraying in word and deed blacks' aspirations for democracy there.

If President Reagan appoints a black ambassador to utter his rhetoric of accommodation in South Africa, that will be another cruel blow to black Africans who have looked to American blacks for champions.

What the US needs is not more accommodation with Pretoria, but a stern look at its own concept of equality and how it is played out at home and abroad.

Nancy Herndon was a teacher with the US Peace Corps in Lesotho.

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