South Africa's future should be bright

Apartheid's dark days are behind; the economy is buzzing, but some 'Big Brother' fears still linger.

For someone like myself, making the first extended visit to South Africa since the bad old days of apartheid, a Sunday morning stroll through the rooftop market in Johannesburg's upscale Rosebank Mall shows a nation transformed.

A mixed choir of smiling, swaying, black and white schoolgirls, pert in their identical school uniforms, is belting out golden oldies to entertain shoppers.

In a nearby bookstore blacks and whites sit armchair to armchair, browsing through books and magazines together.

At the market itself white stall-holders wait upon blacks and whites alike. Black stall-holders wait upon blacks and whites alike as they dispose of the interracial detritus of South African commerce – old silver, used DVDs, painted ostrich eggs, beaded gourds, fake leopard-skin rugs.

In a little cafe, blacks and whites share tables as they sip tea and coffee. The mood is relaxed, jovial.

Welcome to the new South Africa. None of these interracial scenes could have taken place in the old South Africa with its strict policies of segregation.

Gone are the segregated beaches, the park seats reserved for whites only, the separate counters for blacks and whites in government buildings, the segregated coaches on trains, the tidy white enclaves from which blacks were barred except as servants.

Today a black government rules a multi-racial country where white privilege is officially a thing of the past. But if the words of Nelson Mandela, the extraordinary black leader who played the key role in bringing this about, are to hold sway, the white minority and the black majority will live in harmony and collaboration for the common good. Taking power after 27 years in prison for demanding black emancipation, Mr. Mandela told the Johannesburg Star in 1994: "We are not looking for victors and vanquished. Nobody should be frightened and think that this process is going to exclude them, that they are not required. We require all our people, let's forget the past now and think of the present and the future."

The harmony for which Mandela yearned is not yet universally manifest. Says one Afrikaans-speaking editor: "There is still a lot of anger on both sides." There are tensions and crime. But after an emotionally painful period of public confession and reconciliation, the cruelty and horrors of the apartheid years, which included the torture and murder of blacks targeted by white police executioners, has been succeeded at least by accommodation between the country's different groups – the black majority, the English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking white minority, as well as the Indian minority, and the mixed-race people referred to as "Cape coloreds."

South Africa's largest city of Johannesburg is throbbing with economic prosperity as new buildings go up, foreign trade missions seek opportunities, and streets are clogged with Toyotas and BMWs and Mercedes, all of which are assembled in South Africa's auto manufacturing plants for home use and export. Many of the Hummers driven on American roads are made in South Africa.

Aggrey Klaaste, a legendary black newspaper editor in South Africa, used to dream of his nation becoming the power house for an African continent that often seems in economic disrepair. That has not happened yet. Instead of exporting expertise and prosperity, South Africa is the recipient of a flow of emigration from such economically stricken countries as Zimbabwe, as well as from the Congo and Nigeria and others. Rather, as European immigrants, and now Latinos have sought better lives in America, so the citizens of less prosperous African countries trek to South Africa as a pole of attraction and prosperity.

Democracy requires more than free elections, and South Africa has much of the necessary structure. It has a respectable judicial system. It has newspapers that have emerged from harassment and control. They are threading their way through government pressure to praise the new order, versus the need to bring constructive criticism. The government-funded radio and TV South African Broadcasting Corporation, which broadcasts in 11 languages (English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, and other tribal tongues) declares its independence from government meddling and cites its charter to prove it. But some of its journalists still say they feel "Big Brother" looking over their shoulders.

With both blacks and whites having put behind them the dark days of apartheid, the future should be bright.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, has spent the past month in Africa.

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