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Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2002 / 2 Shevat, 5762

Chris Matthews

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Cape of Good Hope


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- CAPE TOWN | In this time of global trouble, I send you this postcard of hope. It's the holiday picture I carry in my heart of a thousand South Africans of every race enjoying a jazz concert together and, with it, this beautiful land's resurgence of national vitality.

The scene is Cape Town's zesty Waterfront area. The group making the music is Johnny Cooper's Big Band. The selections are hits made famous in the 1940s by Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong. The crowd enjoying the music is a bright emblem of the country's diversity: three-quarters black, the rest white or of mixed race.

What struck me, as a tourist coming upon this Sunday evening scene, is its unexpected comfort. Just seven years ago the first all-races election ever was held in this country, and here is democracy come fully alive. Even more than voting together, the people of South Africa are showing they now enjoy life together.

Jazz. That's the unifier of this marvelous tableau. It's gotten people, regardless of color, clapping and tapping to the beat of "Mack the Knife," sharing the dreaminess of "My Funny Valentine," the agreement that, if only for this moment, it truly is a "Wonderful World."

Unfortunately, this scene is not the New Year's greeting card we received in the year-ending newsmagazines. Their editors spent their holiday issues extolling the widening rift between East and West, between Christian and Muslim. But here in South Africa, I find evidence of social forces pulling people together.

What if peoples learn to coexist, even share a national life together? What if the old oppressor learns to deal with the formerly oppressed as a true compatriot? What if the victim of past subservience accepts this change of heart and manner? What if the forces that unite and bind societies outwit those pulling them apart?

Here on a two-week visit with my family I saw that "what if" in action. Amid all the news accounts of street crime and car hijackings here, this is the South African story that has gone unreported. People here are dealing with others as people. They are sharing this subcontinent with unexpected ease. You see that new fact of life in the daily encounters between whites and blacks. I'm not talking about the news photos you scan in tabloids or broad sheets, but what I saw in broad daylight.

It was a scene of harmony and hope I didn't expect to find, not in South Africa, not yet. As a Peace Corps volunteer in this region, I spent two years witnessing the regular victory of racial rivalry over racial peace. The same country that pioneered the heart transplant was obsessed with preventing intimacy between men and women of different backgrounds. I'm talking about those absurd "immorality" laws aimed at keeping white men from having sex with black women.

More demeaning still was the brutal enforcement of white supremacy by individual whites. The "boss" barked the orders, ridiculing as he did the black man charged with carrying out those orders. Given the bad blood I could feel in the streets, I had no reason to believe that replacing white rule with black rule would change the terms on which people dealt with each other. One brutality, I feared, would be traded for another.

Yet, I don't think it's happened that way. These past weeks, I've seen black men and women dealing with white men and women, and what surprises me is the strong element of personal respect and comfort in these face-to-face dealings.

So, I return home to America with more optimism than when I left for the journey. Just as there is unexpected trouble in the world, there are also unexpected possibilities. There are forces, and not just the South African's insatiable appetite for jazz, bonding people together, just as there are those -- I am forced to think of religion -- capable of driving them apart.

No one ever thought that change would come peacefully to South Africa. Holding those first democratic elections in 1994, a truly historic event I was fortunate to cover as a reporter, showed that blacks and whites could vote together. The question was whether they could live together.

I now know that they can.

So I share with you a reason for hope. It is not the rioters in the street who matter in the end. It is the people who build and advance societies. Call me an optimist. I know from reading history that the long course of human experience leads toward civilization. I know as an eyewitness that a country with all the historic conflicts of South Africa is heading in that same direction.

I possess no grander souvenir of this spectacular Cape of Good Hope than the vivid, palpable memory of men and women, black and white, sitting together on a warm summer evening and smiling to the seductive optimism of Louis Armstrong.



JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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