A Native Sees With Foreign Eyes

South African writer glimpses a new society beckoning in a land of contrasts. SOUTH AFRICA

AN American colleague once quipped that the formula for unity in South Africa was to replace the national flag with the green, black, and gold colors of the African National Congress and put a picture of a hamburger and a television set in the middle. All that would remain would be to substitute the South African Constitution with the United States Constitution and the transformation to the ``new'' South Africa would be complete.

It was meant, of course, as a joke, but it is absurdities like these that often capture the essence of what is both an immensely complex and very predictable society.

The flippant proposal symbolizes the mundane aspirations that most South Africans share. And they are not a whole lot different from those to which most Americans aspire.

For this correspondent, a native South African, reporting on South Africa for American publications followed four years of being a correspondent for South African newspapers from London.

On returning to South Africa in 1987, I was able for the first time to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner.

The first thing that struck me was how successful apartheid has been in preventing normal interaction between the races.

The physical separation of the races through segregated residential areas, schools, and recreational activity has created a level of isolation almost as terrifying as the scale of social engineering that has made it possible.

Except for a small minority, racial interaction is limited largely to the workplace and the streets and shopping malls of the major cities.

One of the first things that strikes American visitors is the apparent degree of racial integration and black affluence in cities like Johannesburg, Durban, and Port Elizabeth, and their superficial similarity to American cities.

Then comes the discovery of the subtle ways in which apartheid has shaped the society at every level: far-flung, underdeveloped black townships; the allocation of land along racial lines.

American correspondents often characterize South Africa as the ideal story to cover: You can lead a first-world lifestyle - live in affluent neighborhoods, stay in world-class hotels, see fine theater, and eat in excellent restaurants. The natural beauty of the national parks, beaches, and mountain retreats is stunning and almost inexhaustible in its variety. At the same time, you can cover a third-world story which seldom fails to capture global attention. But even for a visitor who can transcend the South African obsession with politics, apartheid intrudes and offends in daily life.

You can't escape it and you can't get used to it. So you write about it.

I have even seen foreign correspondents inadvertently taking rides on the emotional roller-coaster that is the lot of liberal white South Africans:

One day, one is struck by the extraordinary patience and goodwill of many black South Africans despite the prolonged and dehumanizing trauma they have been subjected to under four decades of apartheid.

The next day, one is awed by the ability of many white South Africans to deceive themselves about the realities surrounding them.

One day, the future of the country can seem pregnant with hope; the next, doomed to annihilation in an apocalyptic race war.

The trauma dissolves on a visit to a Soweto nightspot or the multi-racial Market Theater with its all-night jazz club. The spontaneity and warmth of black South Africans here is uplifting. Where cultural interaction has been able to take place, a new richness in theater, music, and art beckons toward a new culture that would be uniquely South African.

``The world in one country,'' is the cynical clich'e of the tourist arm of a government that has systematically prevented the slogan from becoming a reality.

As a South African, I don't face the threat of expulsion if I incur the wrath of the authorities over my reporting. But I am looked upon as somewhat of an oddity by officials and contemporaries alike. Even as something of a turncoat, at times, by people who don't think I am telling the story the way they think it is.

What often escapes the outside world is that South Africa would have been an enormously diverse and complex society even if apartheid had never existed.

Often the complexities surprise visiting Americans: the degree of political diversity within white society and black society alike; the commitment of anti-apartheid whites; the small but increasingly thriving black middle-class.

``It's nothing like we expected after watching television,'' is a common response from visiting Americans.

Now that the era of anti-American hysteria here is receding, the thing that South Africans have come to admire about America is the achievement of an over-arching national identity.

But the envy finds gross expression in conservative rural and mining towns like Welkom where far right-wing whites - among the three million whites without foreign passports - arm themselves in the name of self-defense.

``The trouble with you Americans is that you think that our blacks are like your blacks in the United States,'' is a stock phrase a white reporter hears in these parts.

On a trip to the western Transvaal town of Zeerust last year during the national election campaign, I traveled with Ray Bonner of The New Yorker, acting as guide and translator.

``Do you know why I like to watch `Dallas'?'' Jan Steyn asked us rhetorically. He is a volunteer helper of the right-wing Conservative Party. ``I like it because there are no blacks on Dallas,'' he said. The American prime-time soap opera is popular throughout South Africa.

In the more fashionable homes of urban Afrikaners in Johannesburg and Pretoria one hears from equally committed fans of ``The Bill Cosby Show,'' which has one of the highest ratings here.

``If our blacks were all like Cosby,'' said one ardent Afrikaner viewer, ``we wouldn't have a race problem.''

Apart from television, the influence of American culture is found in the drive-in movies, high-rise cities, and fast-food stores - American-style deep-fried chicken outlets dominate commercial activity in black townships like Soweto, Mamelodi, Sharpeville, and Sebokeng.

Black activists often return from US exchange programs with radically altered perceptions about the ``American dream,'' and with a greater commitment to build a more individualistic post-apartheid society.

When the correspondent who designed the post-apartheid flag - complete with hamburger and TV set - left South Africa recently to take up a post in an American coastal city, he simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief and looked mildly nostalgic.

``This place is like an American soap opera,'' he said. ``It has no end.''

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