Jewish World Review July 17, 2001 / 26 Tamuz, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning -- JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - As the grandmotherly clerk in the lovely little suburban Johannesburg gift shop begins to fold and bag my new T-shirt, her eyebrows arch at its not-so-lovely message.

Below the words "I Survived Johannesburg," it pictures a cartoon vision of an urban nightmare - beggars, a cell-phone thief, abandoned buildings, gun-wielding security guards, police helicopters and a gun shop with a sign saying "underground shooting range." Behind a crowded taxi-bus with its own gun-wielding guard, a nervous-looking white couple inch their car through tight traffic. The couple has the only white faces in the picture.

"Be sure to keep this one wrapped until you leave South Africa," she says with a smile.

Hey, I want to tell her, you're the one who has it on display. I'm taking this shirt home as evidence of what's been on a lot of South African minds these days: a looming fear that post-apartheid Johannesburg, the city built on a mountain of gold ore, is going down the tubes.

I want to say that, but I don't. I'm black and she's white and, despite the shirt's crudeness, this is the new South Africa. White people have enough to be nervous about in this country, I figure, without my adding to their anxieties.

Instead, I use the shirt as an opportunity to do what I flew 15 hours non-stop from the United States to do, talk to South Africans about the state of their post-apartheid nation.

This is my first return to the republic since my first and only overseas assignment exactly 25 years ago as a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune. That was the summer of the uprising in Jo-burg's all-black Soweto township, the historic beginning of the end for what was left of apartheid, the white-minority government's complex system of racial segregation laws.

A decade after the fall of apartheid, my new T-shirt reminds me of the cynical wisecracks I used to hear about American cities that seemed to be going down the tubes after the riots, rising crime and white flight to the suburbs in the late 1960s. Reports of the doom of American cities proved to be greatly exaggerated. So, I suspect are similar reports in South Africa.

It was inevitable that the problems the apartheid regime had kept bottled up in black reservations like Soweto would come boiling out into previously white areas like downtown Johannesburg. When black crime became a white problem, it became bigger news in major media.

Every day the country's robust English and Afrikaner press banners horror headlines of murders, rapes, AIDS and President Thabo Mbeki's struggles to cleanse his ruling African National Congress of corruption in its vast cadre of newly empowered party leaders.

But following whites to the suburbs is a new generation of middle-class blacks, freed at last from apartheid's chains to help invigorate the country's new economy, cultural life and politics.

In fashionably integrated suburbs like Melville, where I bought my T-shirt, you can see well-dressed black and white yuppies schmoozing over café lattes, munching vegetarian pizzas or dancing together in music and theater clubs. Such crossracial fraternization was a subversive act in the eyes of the old apartheid government. Now it's just ordinary life.

The families behind suburban walls comprise all races. You can live where you want to in the new South Africa now, if you can afford to. The new line of social status here is increasingly the same one that divides the rest of the planet: money.

As a result, just as the old South Africa wasted billions on apartheid, much of its new economy is devoured by expensive security systems. The fabulous stucco homes of suburban South Africa hide behind heavy iron gates and high walls. If the old status symbol here was the swimming pool, the new one is the electrified fence and a big sign on your garage door advertising "24-Hour Armed Response."

Like Germany, South Africa's big problem is less racial unification than an equalization of economic opportunity. South Africa remains two countries, one richly developed, the other miserably mired in Third World poverty and illiteracy.

Everyone is hoping for an economic rebound like the one the United States experienced in the 1990s that would bring similar improvements in crime, employment and prosperity. It could happen. Still, the challenge posed by South Africa's underdeveloped majority is too enormous to be solved by a conventional economic upsurge alone. It will take vast education, training, housing and public health programs, among other efforts that the country is only beginning to launch.

It also will take time and tireless effort. South Africans are showing the rest of the world how the toughest work of revolutions does not end when the old regime is overthrown. That's only the beginning.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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