ON a muddy street nicknamed ''Short Cut to Heaven'' -- because snipers were once active there -- Rexy Matlhaku is planting a new garden outside his repainted home, savoring peace in a new, less turbulent age.
Since the end of apartheid, life has changed dramatically for blacks in South African ''townships,'' the squalid districts where they were forced to live. The townships were once battle zones between rival ethnic groups of blacks who competed in the struggle against apartheid. The most famous, Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, was also the scene for anti-apartheid violence that erupted in 1976 against the white-run regime.
For people like Mr. Matlhaku, the street in Soweto's Meadowlands district is a former ''no-go'' area, where migrant workers of the Zulu tribe who supported the Inkatha Freedom Party fought residents supporting the then-rebel, now-ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Nights were punctured by gunfire. Venturing out to work or school could be fatal. Houses were gutted; many residents fled.
But since the country's first all-race elections a year ago, the political enemies have packed away their distrust, using mediation instead of AK-47 rifles to settle differences. Many refugees like Mr. Matlhaku have returned home and replastered their houses.
''Last year we were still fighting those guys. These days we drink with them and do business with them. We're no longer scared of them,'' says Matlhaku's neighbor Japan Phahna, nonchalantly glancing at some hostel residents strolling by. ''Our leaders said to make peace. We have made peace. The situation has completely changed.''
Life isn't yet perfect: Incidents of fighting still occur, and many of Soweto's 3 million residents lack proper plumbing, sewage, and jobs. Crime is soaring, and taxi gang wars still claim lives. Relations are still strained with the police, who despite reforms are still viewed with suspicion by many communities. But President Nelson Mandela now leads with a moral authority his white predecessors never had among the black majority, which outnumbers whites by 5 to 1. Hope is no longer such a rare commodity among the impoverished.
Death-toll figures say it all. A recent report by the independent Human Rights Committee said politically motivated deaths in Gauteng Province -- which includes the Johannesburg townships -- had shrunk to 6.5 on average a month this year from 63 last year. The nationwide average had fallen to 126.5 deaths a month from 223.5 last year. The one area of continued conflict is the Zulu-dominated KwaZulu-Natal Province, where rivalry between Mr. Mandela's ANC and Inkatha and factional fighting still claim dozens of lives a month.
One sign of the townships' rebirth is Mandela's success in calling youths to end their boycott of school that started under the apartheid era and go back to class to rebuild the nation. Many township schools are still in sorry condition -- overcrowded classrooms, shattered windows, scant books and furniture, holes in the walls, blocked toilets.
But reconstruction of ruined schools is slowly progressing. Nowhere is it more evident than at Soweto's Morris Isaacson school, cradle of the 1976 student protests against apartheid that spawned nearly 20 years of boycotts. The black majority government has sunk some $1 million into painting over the graffiti of despair (''This is Lebanon,'' ''This Way To Rwanda''), repairing damaged schools, and building new classrooms.
Teachers complain there are still not enough books or chairs. But they say attitudes have changed -- students are more motivated. Vandalism and absenteeism are down, grades are up.
''It is remarkable when you consider the old days,'' mused accounting teacher Caiphus Mtalala, who taught at the school in 1976. Patrick Makhajane, a representative of the Congress of South African Students, reports great success in getting students to end their boycott. At 23, after a seven-year absence, he is back at school and working hard to graduate this year. ''Mandela says education is the key to making something of your life. Students are responding.''
Beacon of progress: a mall
Another sign of the changing times is greater investor confidence in what was once considered an area too unstable for business ventures. Soweto's first-ever indoor shopping mall opened in September. The mall, complete with supermarkets, chain stores, and a cinema, is a far cry from the glitzy consumer centers of the white suburbs selling Italian shoes and French cheeses.
There are problems -- a forlorn art gallery owner says sales are low.
Many lots are vacant, and small-shop owners complain that potential customers still go to malls outside Soweto because the center does not lie on major taxi routes. Among the most successful shops is a weapons store.
But business is also good at the cinema, the first of its kind in Soweto. And the trend toward normalcy is there too. Amid violent action films that dominate, there is a coming attraction of a different type. ''Soweto Green'' is a recent film of the new South Africa -- billing itself as ''a comedy that puts you in touch with your roots.''