VENTERSDORP, South Africa - Meshack Mbambalala grew up in this farmingcommunity understanding that being black meant "there were lines I could notcross," he says. The son of farm laborers, he played rugby and soccer with thewhite 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 totheir dreary township, or face arrest.
But Mbambalala knows as well as anyone that South Africa is a country ofdizzying changes.
Ten years after the demise of apartheid - the system of racial oppressionand segregation that made such injustices possible - Mbambalala is now knownto Ventersdorp's residents as "Mr. Mayor."
The shy, slim 34-year-old former shack dweller is serving his second termas 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 wantto see the total integration of society."
Mbambalala's dreams would have sounded ridiculous in 1994. Ventersdorp wasthe center for the Afrikaner right-wing movement, a band of pistol-totingtoughs who threatened to derail South Africa's efforts to establish ademocracy, terrorizing the nation with bombings and mustering an army for acivil war.
The bloody conflict everyone feared never materialized. Instead offollowing the violent path of Rwanda or Yugoslavia, South Africa set to workreinventing itself, dismantling 400 years of white colonialism and segregationand creating a new, nonracial democracy.
Ten years on, South Africa has abolished all of its race-based laws. It hasone of the most progressive constitutions in the world and has providedmillions of poor families access to fresh water, electricity and housing. OnApril 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 blackSouth Africans live in grinding poverty, AIDS threatens the lives of nearlyone in every four adults, and unemployment is growing. Although South Africaboasts a growing black middle class, the white minority still holds the bulkof the country's land and wealth.
"For many black South Africans very little has changed: The same peoplestill own the big houses; they still hold down the best jobs; they still drivethe fancy cars that speed - unseeing - past the black informal settlementsthat line our First World highways," said F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's lastwhite president, speaking in Johannesburg last month.
Whites, meanwhile, complain about the country's spiraling crime rate andsay affirmative action programs are making them victims of reversediscrimination. Frustrated, many white families leave South Africa each year.
In Ventersdorp, Mayor Mbambalala's dream of integration may no longer soundridiculous, but it is not a reality.
Ventersdorp is a two-hour drive west of Johannesburg along route N14, atwo-lane highway that runs deep into a fertile landscape of corn and sunflowerfields. A row of grain silos dominates the town's skyline, a reminder of theagricultural riches that brought white settlers here more than a century ago.
At first glance, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that apartheidnever ended. White residents own the pharmacy, the law office, the grocerystores and most other small businesses in town. Whites live in sprawlingranch-style homes with swimming pools and flower gardens, and commute to workby car.
Blacks clean the white families' homes, weed their gardens and till thesoil on their farms. Many continue to address white men as "baas" and whitewomen as "madam." They travel to work on foot from their homes in TshingTownship, where 4,500 families live in a crush of metal shacks, crookedstreets and simple brick houses on the outskirts of town.
But in Tshing, the sweeping changes of the past decade are clearly visible.The local government built more than 1,800 homes to replace the township'scorrugated shacks, and 2,000 more homes are under construction.
Families that once fetched water from nearby streams, lighted their homeswith candles and relieved themselves in buckets have access to water,electricity and toilets. Last year, the township opened its first publiclibrary. Construction of a public park and soccer field is under way.
As he walks through the township's dusty streets, Mayor Mbambalala says,"happiness fills my eyes" at the sight of the construction projects.
Ventersdorp's white residents, however, who pay the bulk of the town'staxes, say these development projects are coming at the expense of road andpark maintenance in their neighborhoods, discouraging desperately neededinvestment.
"It's been the opposite of apartheid. Very little money is spent onwhites," says Dawie Wilken, a white farmer and Ventersdorp council member.
"All the money is being spent on previously disadvantaged areas. I don'thave a problem with that, but I don't think they should kill the goose thatlaid the golden egg," he says.
Mbambalala, who normally speaks in a voice so soft it's as if he iswhispering, hardened with anger when he heard the whites' complaints abouttownship development.
"Now's the time to give back, and I'm not sorry about it," he snaps, beforepausing and calmly comparing Ventersdorp's plight to the challenges of unitingEast and West Germany.
"The people in West Germany are taxed more to develop East Germany. Is itwrong to do the same?" he asks. "They cannot have the luxuries they hadbefore."
Politically, Mbambalala is far more concerned about the plight of the blackpopulation, which is locked in a life of dismal poverty. More than 70 percentof the black population is unemployed. Gold mines in the area have shut down,forcing thousands out of work. Farmers have laid off hundreds of workers,complaining that the government's new minimum wage laws make it too expensiveto hire more.
The government has also been slow to meet the demand for services. InTshing Township, 700 families are waiting on houses, electricity and water.Some black residents, like Ruth Dintwe, 75, say little has changed for hereconomically since 1994. Her eldest children cannot find jobs, so all ninemembers of her family depend on her monthly $120 government pension.
"We sometimes go a day or two without food," she says.
But Dintwe says she has not lost faith in the ruling African NationalCongress, the party of Nelson Mandela, which has dominated South Africangovernment since 1994. Given time, she hopes the government will match thepolitical miracle with an economic one. According to the latest polls, the ANCis expected to garner 70 percent of the vote, handing President Thabo Mbeki asecond five-year term.
But whites are wary of political dominance of the ANC. On Ventersdorp's10-member council, the two members of the Democratic Alliance, the country'smain opposition party, are always outnumbered by the eight ANC members.
Opposition members accuse the ANC-led town government of abusing power,playing racial politics and governing ineptly.
When hiring a new finance director, the council members narrowed theirsearch to one black candidate and one white candidate. The white applicant hada superior education, but she was passed over in favor of the black applicant,who had fewer qualifications, says Councilman Allan Jones.
"We would love to work together. But from the start they ignore us. It's awaste of time, but I believe someone here has to be a watchdog," says Jones, awhite opposition member.
Mbambalala denies the opposition's accusations, but he admits that likemany rookie black politicians in South Africa, he had little preparation forhis job.
When the ANC asked him to run for mayor in 1995, he remembers going to thelibrary to find out what a mayor does.
Whatever the books said, Mbambalala has come to define his job as"improving the lives of the poor," he says.
Mbambalala governs without pretensions, choosing to live in the township ina one-bedroom brick government home that replaced his metal shack severalyears ago. Inside are a double bed, a color television and a table with fourchairs. A naked bulb hangs from the ceiling. The kitchen wall is decoratedwith a poster of Bob Marley.
Mbambalala makes efforts to reach out to the white community. Each year hevisits the predominantly white Afrikaans high school to present watches to thetop graduating students. Still, he has grown accustomed to many whiteresidents expressing disappointment that he is mayor.
"We've got to be realistic. We can't expect people brought up a certain wayto change all of a sudden," he says.
Mbambalala says that even his father must be reminded that the era of whitedomination is over.
"Whenever he meets a white person he stands up straight as a soldierwaiting to be told what to do," Mbambalala laughs.
One issue that Ventersdorp's blacks and whites both agree on is thatrelations between them have improved significantly since 1994, whenVentersdorp held the reputation as South Africa's most right wing, racisttown.
The reputation was largely the work of a group of militant Afrikaners knownas the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) led by Eugene Terreblanche, a fieryVentersdorp resident who organized thousands of Afrikaners to resist blackmajority rule and create a separate white state.
In 1991, then-President De Klerk, who had released Nelson Mandela fromprison and ended the ban on the ANC, visited Ventersdorp to spread his messageof political reform. Two thousand members of the AWB broke up the politicalrally, forcing De Klerk to flee in an armored vehicle. When AWB members beganattacking blacks in the streets, police opened fire, killing three members. Astone and black marble monument honoring the dead stands in Ventersdorp's townsquare.
A new era
But this is now a different community.
Black residents walk Ventersdorp's streets at night without fear of thepolice. Blacks and whites share rooms at the hospital, wait in the same linesat the post office. In 1999, the first black person was buried inVentersdorp's white cemetery.
"We are free, like a bird on a tree," says Khumo Motshabi, who has lived inVentersdorp for 15 years. "We" - whites and blacks - "are starting to becomefriends. On the phone, they call us `Mams' and `Sirs.' "
Whites, too, say they are learning to be more considerate to blacks. "Inthe old days you could shout at someone. Now you have to be moreunderstanding," says Johan Du Toit, a Ventersdorp pharmacist.
Many whites also boast that the schools are integrated. In 1995, the firstblack students enrolled at the town's Afrikaans school. Fifteen percent of thestudents are black or of mixed race.
"It was very difficult for both pupils and parents, who didn't want toaccept the change," says Principal Lynette Cooke, who proudly points out thephotos of black students on the school office walls.
Efforts to integrate Ventersdorp Primary School failed. Within two years ofenrolling the first black students in 1995, all of the white families hadtransferred their children to other schools, including a private church schoolthat does not allow black students.
The Ventersdorp Golf Club also remains a cocoon of white privilege. Blacksare not welcome to join the club, although an Indian businessman was allowedto become a member in 2001, after seven years of applying without success.
On weekday afternoons the club's bar is packed with Afrikaners, manydressed in khaki shorts and knee-high socks, playing darts, drinking beer andbemoaning the loss of the life they once led.
"A lot of black people were better off in the old South Africa," grousedPiet Vieljoen, a golf club member who served as a town councilman duringapartheid. "The Afrikaners uplifted the blacks in South Africa, so why are wethe scapegoats of the whole world?"
Mayor Mbambalala says he could press more vigorously to open up the golfclub to black members, change the town's Afrikaner street names and replacethe Afrikaner monuments with ones celebrating black history. But he wouldrather expend his energies elsewhere.
"If I had my way, I could have changed them the first day. But it was not apriority. Our people didn't have running water," he says.
Ventersdorp will become symbol of South Africa's transformation, Mbambalalasays. If race relations can improve here, he reasons, they can improveanywhere.
Dozens of surveys have been conducted this year to measure race relations10 years after the end of apartheid. Perhaps one of the most encouraging wasresearched by the newspaper Business Day, which found that blacks and whitesare beginning to envy each other. A large proportion of blacks feel it wouldbe better to be white in the new South Africa, while whites feel it would bemore advantageous to be black.
In Ventersdorp, the dividing line between the white and black neighborhoodsis blurring. A few black residents - many teachers, police officers and otherprofessionals - have moved into formerly all-white areas.
One of the pioneers of this trend is Japhta Duma, a 33-year-old primaryschool teacher who moved with his wife and daughter out of their shack in thetownship to a three-bedroom ranch-style house not far from the town's golfcourse.
Within a year of their arrival, the white families on either side of hisproperty moved. Other white neighbors ignored him, wouldn't let their childrenplay with his daughter or mistook Duma for a gardener and his wife for a maid.Duma was not discouraged.
Eventually, other white families moved in. They are not close friends, butthey get along more or less, Duma says. They have visited one another's homesonce or twice. In the summer, they exchange vegetables from their gardens.
In the living room Duma has hung a poster of Nelson Mandela. Above thefireplace, he displays a photo of his 8-year-old daughter, who he expects willexperience a South Africa unlike anything he has known.
"She's growing up with no boundaries," says Duma. "In the future, they mustlearn they are one people in one country. They must cut down racialboundaries. I didn't have that chance."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun