VENTERSDORP, South Africa - Meshack Mbambalala grew up in this farming community understanding that being black meant "there were lines I could not cross," he says. The son of farm laborers, he played rugby and soccer with the white farm boys but was forbidden from eating at the same table with them.
He used separate entrances at the post office and grocery stores. At dusk,
a siren blared, warning blacks to vacate the white neighborhoods and return to
their dreary township, or face arrest.
But Mbambalala knows as well as anyone that South Africa is a country of
Ten years after the demise of apartheid - the system of racial oppression
and segregation that made such injustices possible - Mbambalala is now known
to Ventersdorp's residents as "Mr. Mayor."
The shy, slim 34-year-old former shack dweller is serving his second term
as leader of this community of 15,000 blacks and 2,000 whites.
"I want to see Ventersdorp leading the way forward," says Mbambalala,
sitting in a large executive's chair in the mayor's office. "In my life I want
to see the total integration of society."
Mbambalala's dreams would have sounded ridiculous in 1994. Ventersdorp was
the center for the Afrikaner right-wing movement, a band of pistol-toting
toughs who threatened to derail South Africa's efforts to establish a
democracy, terrorizing the nation with bombings and mustering an army for a
The bloody conflict everyone feared never materialized. Instead of
following the violent path of Rwanda or Yugoslavia, South Africa set to work
reinventing itself, dismantling 400 years of white colonialism and segregation
and creating a new, nonracial democracy.
Ten years on, South Africa has abolished all of its race-based laws. It has
one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and has provided
millions of poor families access to fresh water, electricity and housing. On
April 14, South Africa will hold its third fully democratic general election.
'Little has changed'
Although South Africa didn't come apart, it hasn't come together, either.
South Africa remains divided in every imaginable way. Millions of black
South Africans live in grinding poverty, AIDS threatens the lives of nearly
one in every four adults, and unemployment is growing. Although South Africa
boasts a growing black middle class, the white minority still holds the bulk
of the country's land and wealth.
"For many black South Africans very little has changed: The same people
still own the big houses; they still hold down the best jobs; they still drive
the fancy cars that speed - unseeing - past the black informal settlements
that line our First World highways," said F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last
white president, speaking in Johannesburg last month.
Whites, meanwhile, complain about the country's spiraling crime rate and
say affirmative action programs are making them victims of reverse
discrimination. Frustrated, many white families leave South Africa each year.
In Ventersdorp, Mayor Mbambalala's dream of integration may no longer sound
ridiculous, but it is not a reality.
Ventersdorp is a two-hour drive west of Johannesburg along route N14, a
two-lane highway that runs deep into a fertile landscape of corn and sunflower
fields. A row of grain silos dominates the town's skyline, a reminder of the
agricultural riches that brought white settlers here more than a century ago.
At first glance, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that apartheid
never ended. White residents own the pharmacy, the law office, the grocery
stores and most other small businesses in town. Whites live in sprawling
ranch-style homes with swimming pools and flower gardens, and commute to work
Blacks clean the white families' homes, weed their gardens and till the
soil on their farms. Many continue to address white men as "baas" and white
women as "madam." They travel to work on foot from their homes in Tshing
Township, where 4,500 families live in a crush of metal shacks, crooked
streets and simple brick houses on the outskirts of town.
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