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Teens' Views of South African Turmoil

April 21, 1999|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years of the horror stories and retired Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu sometimes had to bury his head in his hands and weep, on national TV.

As head of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission on apartheid-era human rights abuses, Tutu stomached such stories as that of national security officers who said they poisoned a student's coffee, shot him in the head, burned his body and barbecued their dinner with the flames. But he wanted to stop listening, to offer his resignation to President Nelson Mandela. The stories--they must not stop, Tutu now says, even though the truth panel's main work is over.

In his foreword to "No More Strangers Now: Young Voices From a New South Africa" (DK Ink, 1998), Tutu writes: "In South Africa, we are learning to heal through the telling of stories like these, for it is only through telling that we heal; it is only through revealing the heart's darkest crevices that we can begin to understand, to forgive, and to move forward."

The book includes the personal narratives and photographs of 12 South African teenagers. The teens let loose on their lives before and after Mandela's election in 1994, which, in the Western world, precipitated a waning interest in South Africa's future. How many people can even name Mandela's heir apparent, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki?

This is an anti-expert commentary on what's happening in South Africa, the sort of real-people talk you get at a shebeen, a squatter camp pub. With South Africa's second democratic election set for June 2--marking the end of Mandela's rule--the teenagers' stories are bittersweet reminders of the country's wobbly democracy.

American authors Tim McKee and Anne Blackshaw stay out of the mostly unedited narratives, except for short introductions to each one. In easy-to-read chapters with arresting black-and-white photography, they present teens who are black, white or what's known there as colored (mixed race). McKee and Blackshaw, who lived in Johannesburg in the mid-'90s, are white; McKee was a high school teacher and Blackshaw was a community activist.

They coaxed stories out of kids like 15-year-old Pfano Takalani in the small village of Venda, where people live in thatched mud huts with no running water or electricity. Apartheid? What is that to a boy who has spoken to only two white people in his life and knows that the tribal chief, not the government, takes care of poor families by killing a cow for them?

"I don't expect many changes in the future because when I grew up it was like this, and it's still like this now," he says.

By contrast, in a rich white suburb of Cape Town, Mark Abrahamson, 16, is slowly learning about the country in which he lives. Mandela? His impression was that of "a scary, violent character." What did he learn of South Africa in school? Well, African literature was not allowed. "I remember reading Rudyard Kipling's books about African animals, but that's not really African literature, is it?"

Then the stories came out before the truth commission, and Abrahamson got curious. He walked through a squatter camp. Blacks were friendly. He was surprised.

"It seems there's this incredible feeling of forgiveness on the part of black people," he says.

"Not many people have the privilege to be living in a country that is changing so rapidly, and I feel quite proud of my land."

This Sunday in Book Review:

Does a Los Angeles literature exist? And if so, what are the factors that define it? Twenty-nine local authors answer these and other questions while providing a list of the essential L.A. novels.

Plus, Michael Korda remembers a visit he made to Will and Ariel Durant, and Carlos Fuentes and Milan Kundera wish each other happy 70th birthday.

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