YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Documentary : South Africa, at History's Crossroads : A correspondent sees hope for the nation in its long, painful struggle to end apartheid.


OUKASIE, South Africa — More than five years ago, as a newly arrived correspondent, I learned an important lesson from the courageous people of this little township. And now, as I leave, their example gives me hope for South Africa.

Oukasie had existed for half a century to tend the rose bushes, work the factory lines, clean the clothes and mind the children for whites in Brits, half a mile away.

Trouble was, the whites had suddenly decided that Oukasie was getting too close. So they set up a new township, 15 miles further down the road, ordered Oukasie to move and sent in the bulldozers.

When a court order stopped the bulldozers, the whites turned to one of apartheid's more sinister weapons: They cut off all services in hopes of making this the most unpleasant place on Earth to live.

And was it ever unpleasant! Several thousand men, women and children were forced to live in shacks, without electricity, water, telephones or toilets. Yet, by fighting to stay, they had forced a showdown with the powerful white state that I feared would end, as it so often did in those days, in tragedy.

When I returned to Oukasie recently, I found a township with bright new street lights, new toilets for every shack, water taps, a new paved road and even a new stop sign. The clatter of hammers and shovels filled the air. Some residents were even putting up new fences.

Oukasie had won its war.

"The Boers (Afrikaners) were fighting us. They said we must go," explained Ellen Khoza, 61, an Oukasie resident since 1949. "But now everything has changed. Oukasie is our place again. And those whites in town--well, they're really all right."

The battle for racial supremacy in South Africa is, for all intents and purposes, over now. Nelson Mandela has been freed from jail, anti-apartheid groups have been legalized, and signs of free speech and free political activity are evident everywhere for the first time in 350 years.

The 20% white minority stands on the verge of handing political power to a government elected by all of South Africa's people. And few can now doubt that black people will soon be in charge.

But racial equality under the law, as Americans know well, is no guarantee of racial harmony. The coming year--and probably the next five or 10 or 20 years--will dangerously stretch the weak fabric of South African society.


The citizenry already has become numbed by violence, which rages at a pace that would horrify any civilized nation. Much of it is political and some is plainly criminal. A troubling segment of it is racial, such as the growing attacks by right-wing whites on blacks and the killing of a white Newport Beach, Calif., Fulbright scholar last week in Cape Town. And most of the violence is clearly beyond the investigative capacity of the national police.

Will the killing diminish with the arrival of a popularly elected government? That is anyone's guess, but the country's new leaders will be hard-pressed to stop it. The other big worry is the economy. Sub-Saharan Africa's industrial giant now is suffering through what is likely to be its fourth consecutive year of recession. And it lacks the muscle to uplift the millions of blacks who wait to be rescued from apartheid.

When I look back on the last five years in South Africa, though, I see reasons for hope in the courage of the people of Oukasie--and of Crossroads, of Soweto and of the hundreds of other townships so nearly crushed by the jackboot of apartheid.

Too many have suffered, and too many have died, for South Africa to fail.

Of course, the country's future can't help but be hurt by the loss of so many solid community leaders to assassins' bullets.

Typical of them was Pro Jack, an anti-apartheid activist in Cape Town who became a friend of mine. He was little known outside his home territory, though he had come from a large family of activists. His father had been jailed for anti-apartheid work, and Pro Jack and his sister both had spent time in jail for vague "crimes against the state."

And yet, like so many who have been imprisoned by white rulers here, Pro Jack had little patience with talk of retribution. Instead, he spent his days and nights working for the future of his townships, trying to persuade militant youth to stay in school and working to improve those schools.

Later, he took it upon himself to mediate the bloody disputes among black taxi operators that have dogged Cape Town's townships. It may have been that effort that resulted, two years ago, in his assassination at age 35. No one has ever been arrested in that case.

South Africa's future now belongs to the survivors, so many of whom have endured brutal attempts to crush their wills. The suffering of leaders such as Mandela is well known. But there are tens of thousands of others like him walking South Africa's streets today.


Los Angeles Times Articles