I see a new land of dignity, hope, and dreams

Ten years ago Tuesday, the first democratic elections took place in South Africa - an occasion now commemorated as Freedom Day

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Johannesburg Airport. I'd been to South Africa once, a long time ago, during apartheid. Now it was, 25 years later, coincidentally the 10th anniversary of Freedom Day and democracy.

I collected my suitcase and hailed a taxi. The driver, a black man with a chiseled face and dark eyes, grinned as he lifted my bag into the trunk. Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn't have dared to look a black man in the face because we both could have been arrested under the Immorality Act, charged with "intention to seduce." Back then, black South Africans shuffled past whites with their heads bowed, and the most I'd seen of a black man was the top of his head or the back of his neck.

It was dusk when we wound through the tree-lined suburban streets and large houses of Rosebank, a half-hour outside Johannesburg. The last time I was in South Africa, I'd stayed in a cottage 18 miles from Port Elizabeth. To buy groceries, I'd driven along the coastal road, past beaches with signs: Whites Only; Coloreds Only; Malays Only; Chinese Only; Indians Only. Now the only signs I saw were street signs. Mandela had achieved the impossible, I thought.

"That's Mandela's house," said the driver, pointing to a large pink house on a quiet street. The blinds were drawn, and the house looked empty.

"He's an incredible man," I said.

"Oh, yes, one of the three great M's," said the driver. "M's?" I asked.

"Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela. They were all great leaders" who favored nonviolence.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was dark. A smiling black bellman in a crisp maroon uniform took my bag. Twenty-five years ago, South African blacks weren't allowed outside after dark. They called the cities "white at night." Blacks had to carry "dumb books," listing their name, race, tribe, and parents. There were pages to record the regional tax if they traveled from city to city. Whites traveled free.

"Welcome." A handsome dark-skinned man stood behind the hotel desk, impeccably dressed in a black suit. I later learned he was a university economics student. When I was there the first time, the government had made it virtually impossible for a black person to finish grade school, let alone try for a college degree.

Next morning, I got up and went running. On the street, a black South African woman dressed in a long skirt, flowered blouse, and head scarf ran toward me, breaking out into a huge grin as our eyes met. I smiled back as she sprinted past to catch a bus. Last time, I'd stopped to give a ride to a black South African woman walking along the road. I'd opened the passenger door, but the woman had slid into the back seat. She hadn't said a word the entire trip. When she got out, she gave me a slight nod. I saw terror in her eyes.

Twenty-five years ago, I knew all about the townships where black people lived. I'd read that nothing had changed since, that at least 40 percent of all blacks were unemployed. Still, I wanted to visit one.

Thando, my guide, took me to New Rest Township outside Cape Town. We walked on dirt streets past a maze of shacks made from corrugated tin sheets, cardboard, and loose boards. There was no plumbing, but there was electricity, even a working computer. Thando showed me where locals were learning to make bricks. "So they can build their own houses," he said.

Small children ran up to us and grabbed my hands. None begged. "Why do they all want to hold my hand?" I asked.

"Because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves," Thando said. I looked into the children's faces and saw something that had been absent 25 years ago: hope.

Ahmed Kathrada, in "Letters From Robben Island," writes that he hopes the former South African prison will be remembered as "a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness, a triumph of the new South Africa over the old." Robben Island was now one of the country's top tourist destinations. My guide, former prisoner Eddie Daniels, pointed out the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for nearly three decades. He told the story of a prisoner who had been beaten viciously. "But he walked out that door, standing tall, standing proud," Daniels said. "Never for a moment did he lose his dignity."

Maybe dignity was the key. South Africa was once a place where some of the worst suppression of the human spirit ever took place; it experienced apartheid for more than 40 years and has enjoyed democracy for only a decade. And even though the majority of black people are still living in poverty, the South Africans I met on this trip had dignity, hope, and dreams.

South Africa is still very much in transition, but at last the new South Africa has triumphed over the old.

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