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Posted on Fri, Apr. 16, 2004

Little changed for South Africa blacks in 10 years since apartheid

Knight Ridder Newspapers

VENTERSDORP, South Africa - The black mayor of this rural town said recently that he's never felt more comfortable around whites than he does today.

That isn't saying much. Blacks such as Meshack Mbambalala - nicknamed "Mr. Mayor" - remain separated from whites in almost every way. Much the same remains true of South Africa, despite the official end of white rule a decade ago.

Back then, Mbambalala, 26 and a communist, was so determined to unite blacks and whites that he named his baby Nhlanganiso. It means "Reconciliation."

"My immediate goal is to see both communities living together, recognizing each other as human beings, not as white or black," Mbambalala told this reporter in 1995 after he was first elected mayor.

Today, whites worry about soaring crime rates and affirmative action policies meant to undo the effects of white separatism. Blacks, for the most part, remain trapped in poverty and unemployment. A small black middle class is growing, but white South Africans still dominate the nation's economy.

In some ways, black South Africans are better off. They have new access to clean water, sanitation and electricity. The country boasts a constitution that's progressive enough to protect the rights of gays. Public schools have been desegregated and race laws abolished. In Ventersdorp, the mayor can go into a bar once off-limits to blacks and be served by a blonde waitress.

But blacks and whites remain largely estranged.

"The type of reconciliation we wanted, what President Nelson Mandela wanted 10 years back, is now one-way traffic," said Mbambalala, a thin, shy man whose soft voice vanishes when someone walks into the bar.

"We are the ones pushing towards, while the other party is just standing there," he said.

It's in rural communities, where 45 percent of South Africans live and memories are long, that the strains are clearest. In Ventersdorp, for example, some 2,000 whites tend to cling to a bygone era while 15,000 blacks hunger for a richer future.

Their history makes matters worse: Ventersdorp was once the base of a white militant group called the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, which terrorized blacks at gunpoint in nighttime raids. Mbambalala grew up on a farm where, he said, the white landowner treated blacks "as if they were part of his tools."

The leader of the Afrikaner movement, Eugene Terreblanche, is in jail now, his group disbanded.

"The wounds are very deep," said Sam Louw, this area's member of Parliament from the ruling African National Congress party.

Thanks to the ANC-led black government, virtually everyone has basic utilities in Tshing, a black township that was built under apartheid for workers who served Ventersdorp's whites. In recent years, 1,850 brick houses have been built, mostly with taxes paid by whites.

But jobs remain scarce, Mbambalala said. Mines have shut down and many white farmers, worried about their future and a recent drought, have laid off workers.

"Most people can't put bread on their tables," Mbambalala said. The same is the case nationally for the ANC. Although the party won this week's parliamentary and provincial elections by landslide margins, many supporters expected to make more progress under the ANC.

Not surprisingly, his biggest critics these days are black, not white.

"We were expecting our lives to be better," said Rosta Boikanyo, 62, a domestic worker who's been jobless for five years, supporting a daughter and two grandchildren on a $115-a-month pension. They live in a rusting tin shack the size of a cargo container.

"I was expecting to live in a house," said Boikanyo, a plump woman with a faint smile. "They promised us that."

She admits some progress. Whites and blacks can attend the same schools and use the same hospitals. This year, the town got its first black police chief. Some middle-class blacks have moved into once-white neighborhoods.

"We can walk safely in the night even in white areas," said Bernice Boikanyo, 24, Rosta's daughter. "Before, they would beat you or even kill you."

Yet the racial lines haven't blurred. Blacks still tend the gardens of whites in Ventersdorp or work as their maids. Whites own virtually all businesses. Blacks still refer to whites as "baas." And whites call their maids "girls."

Whites and blacks mostly attend separate schools. That's because whites want to be taught in the Dutch-based Afrikaans language while blacks prefer English. Besides, most blacks can't afford the fees at the Afrikaans high school.

They can't afford to join the Ventersdorp Golf Club, either. It's no longer solely for whites, but its management has done little to encourage black membership.

"Nothing has changed," Mbambalala said. "They say everyone is allowed, but they set still high conditions that exclude a lot of black people."

When the mayor drops in on official business, members treat him politely, in an artificial sort of way, he said.

"Don't forget. I'm the mayor. Even people who don't like me are going to smile and shake hands with me," Mbambalala said.

There's another secret to his acceptance. Before he goes to the club, he always puts on his steel-rimmed glasses and a nice tie.

"If I go there, and somebody doesn't recognize me, without my spectacles or my tie," he explained, "things might not be so easy."

At night, blacks and whites seldom mingle, unable to break down the psychic wall that apartheid left behind.

"There are still plenty of whites-only places," said Peter Uys, 24, who's white and works at a winery. "Blacks are scared because of the reputation white people have here. And we are scared to go to the townships."

Uys, who grew up in Ventersdorp, recalled the day in 1994 when the first black student came into his classroom. A white classmate went up to the new arrival and slapped his face.

Today, Uys said, he has "no problems with blacks." Yet he feels that under black majority rule, "everything is getting worse, worse and worse."

"Crime is definitely worse than it was 10 years ago," said Uys, a tall, burly man. "They are getting as racist as it was then. It's now all about black empowerment. There are less jobs and rights for white people now."

It's difficult for Mbambalala, too, who said he couldn't count a single white person as a friend.

"There is no eraser that can do away with the past," he said.

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