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SOUTH AFRICA: UNFINISHED REVOLUTION

Two Towns, Two Tests of Freedom

South Africa's majority government has made great strides in bringing an end to the racist policies of the past. The real challenge has been in the small towns, where some communities are faring better than others.

Mutual self-interest spurs Stutterheim residents to bridge racial barriers to better their lives.

May 28, 1999|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STUTTERHEIM, South Africa — It has been more than a century since the last of South Africa's frontier wars, but this rugged region near the Indian Ocean is still known as the Border, a reference to the bloody dividing line between white settlers and the Xhosa people.

A lot has changed since the Xhosa were defeated in 1878 and finally rendered servants to the whites' expansive Cape Colony. Five years ago, perhaps the most famous Xhosa of all--Nelson Mandela--became president, the first black to govern both blacks and whites since the arrival of European settlers 3 1/2 centuries ago.

In this Border farming and logging town, named after a 19th century German army commander once stationed here, the racial divide is also looking remarkably unlike the colonial past. A rapprochement is underway that has blacks and whites working hand in hand for the first time.

All is not well by any measure, but in the vast landscape of racial disharmony that is South Africa, the 30,000 residents here stand out: Blacks and whites acknowledge that they cannot go it alone; their destinies are one and the same.

"We can't just look after our little white butts any longer," said Dr. Adrian Cole, a family physician who serves on the local school board. "We have to look at the big picture and accept this is Africa. The blacks aren't going anywhere, and there are too many whites to get rid of us. We share this place."

A short distance away, beyond the sawmill, across the railroad tracks and down a bumpy, unpaved road, Lloyd Phuphu Mgwangqa has come to a similar conclusion, albeit with different reasoning. A town council member with a booming money-lending business, Mgwangqa has built a spacious brick house in the heart of "the location," the vernacular for Stutterheim's black township of Mlungisi.

"Let's face it, we need the whites more than they need us," said Mgwangqa, interrupting himself to take a business call on his mobile telephone. "The thing that always keeps blacks different from whites is an understanding of business. We need to be in partnership with whites so we can learn from them and influence how money is invested."

From the very beginning, such mutual self-interest has been a guiding principle in South Africa's peaceful transformation from apartheid to a multiracial democracy. Without it, many of the momentous changes of the past five years would not have been possible.

But outside the halls of Parliament, government conference rooms and big-city workplaces, the "we-are-in-this-together" realization has yet to take hold in the minds of countless ordinary South Africans. In many ways, the country's transformation has dragged at the grass-roots because of continued racial separation, both physical and psychological.

Stutterheim is different, not only because most residents seem to have signed off on a new worldview--and started doing so a decade ago, before the rest of the country. The residents also are actively reaching across racial barriers to better the community.

"Our firm belief is that no one can sort out our problems but ourselves," said Chris Magwangqana, a former community activist in the black township who has been Stutterheim's mayor since 1995. "Starting early allowed us to make mistakes at a time when the country was changing and no one really knew the policy of the day."

The achievements have been simple but significant. Plans for housing projects have been drafted, water taps installed, sewers dug and electricity lines extended to black neighborhoods. Several new schools have been built and adult training programs launched. A computer center has been opened next to the high school, which has been integrated without serious incident. And several hundred new jobs have been created in everything from sewing to fence-making.

Town Is Inspiration Despite Shortcomings

There are shortcomings too. Blacks in Stutterheim outnumber whites 9 to 1 but have only a fraction of the wealth. The local economy is a wreck, with joblessness approaching twice the national average. Only about a quarter of Mlungisi residents can afford to pay for municipal services, which in some cases have been cut off by cash-strapped authorities.

Magwangqana and a small group of influential blacks have moved into the previously all-white town, but there is still little racial mixing outside officialdom and work gatherings. Mgwangqa, the money lender, said he was unable to buy a house in a white neighborhood because the banks refused to give him a loan.

Even with its blemishes, Stutterheim has been an inspiration to other South African towns, many of which are only now seriously thinking about change. More than 100 municipalities have sent representatives to the "Little Bavaria of the Border" to learn about its story.

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