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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.

Black-white tensions, linguistic divide have set back Vryburg's economic and social development.


VRYBURG, South Africa — This dusty ranching town looks and feels a lot like Texas. The biggest happening within miles is the weekly cattle auction. The landscape is flat, dry savannah. Late last century, the town served as the capital of a maverick white republic whose flag featured a single star.

But when William Langeveldt moved back home to Vryburg a few years ago after living in the United States, he was reminded of an American town during the civil rights struggle.

"Vryburg is the Birmingham, Ala., of South Africa," said Langeveldt, a former town clerk whose ancestors were the indigenous Khoi-San, or Bushmen. "It is a typical South African town, except that things exploded quicker here."

What makes Vryburg's plight typical, Langeveldt and others say, is that five years of multiracial democracy have done little to address one of its oldest problems: Blacks and whites don't know how to get along. In some cases, they are not interested in trying. And the entire town of 38,000 is suffering as a consequence, with both economic and social development at a virtual standstill.

"We are living from hand to mouth right now," said Mayor Hoffman Galeng, a former anti-apartheid activist.

Unlike Birmingham in the 1960s, blacks here have not been killed in racist bombings or blocked from entering public schools. But the town's formerly whites-only high school has become a violent battleground for English-speaking blacks and Afrikaans-speaking whites uneasy with changing racial and linguistic roles.

Student Conflict at Vryburg High School

People of all races say they sometimes worry about their safety because of tension at the 110-year-old school, which was required to accept black students after the country's multiracial elections in 1994.

"The conflict around Vryburg High School over the past years cannot be seen in separation from the wider processes of transition and change in the country as a whole," a report commissioned by provincial education authorities concluded last year. "From the different sides, the school has taken on symbolic dimensions."

Last year, scores of black students were beaten with leather horsewhips in their classrooms by a gang of angry white parents and new graduates who said they were fed up with "undisciplined blacks" disrupting the school. The whips, known as sjamboks, were the kind used by police during the apartheid era to break up black crowds.

Among the complaints were allegations by white girls that black students were groping them in the hallways. According to one education official, some white parents were so incensed that they came with firearms.

At the beginning of this school year, a 19-year-old black student, Andrew Babeile, stabbed a white student in the neck with a pair of scissors after a shoving match. Babeile, who has repeated the same grade four times, has been identified by whites as a ringleader of blacks more interested in troublemaking than learning.

"We must transform our country. We must change the past picture," said Frik de Bruin, deputy chairman of the all-white school board, which has two nonvoting black observers. "But unfortunately, the majority of blacks are now taking revenge--doing to others what had been done to them."

Babeile, whose dream is to play basketball, says he is continually provoked by white classmates. With no black administrators and only a handful of black teachers, he says, black students have nowhere to turn.

"It isn't everyone, but there is a group of whites who are influencing the others," said Babeile, who has returned to school while the stabbing incident is being investigated. "They just don't want us in their school because we are black."

Vryburg's racial difficulties have centered on the high school, but residents say the problems are not limited to the institution. As in many towns across South Africa, the new black majority town council has managed to improve basic services to neglected black neighborhoods. There are new street lights, sewer lines, a swimming pool and a new library in the outlying black township of Huhudi.

With many blacks and whites still at loggerheads, however, there has been little progress in what everyone describes as the town's most urgent needs: jobs and investment.

"If the whites would change and think of us as people, it would get a lot better," said Huhudi resident Lilly Meyer, who lost her job of 30 years when a local clothing factory went out of business in 1996. "They closed the factory when we all joined a union. The whites don't like us to live better."

Blacks complain about other forms of bigotry, such as double standards for blacks and whites seeking bank loans, white police commanders who show little interest in crime in black neighborhoods and even inattentive service at white-run restaurants.

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