Home after 10 days in South Africa

By Krista Kafer krista555@msn.com

    “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” -Nelson Mandela

When I close my eyes and think of South Africa I see rolling hills of long grass in the bright autumn sun. Umbrella-like acacia trees cast small circles of shade and bright pink cosmo flowers bend in the breeze. Young men drive cattle. Miles away in a game preserve I glimpse lions dozing in the heat of the midday. Three male kudu with dark spiraling horns crest a hill in the distance while a delicate bushbuck darts into the brush. Great marabou storks slowly circle downward to roost for the night. Hippos end their river sojourn to venture onto land.

Night falls and I can trace the Southern Cross, a constellation viewable only in the southern hemisphere. Bats seize insects on the wing. Then I am walking beside the deep cut of the Blyde River Canyon where the sound of waterfalls deafens. Farther into the mountains, a mist veils God’s Window, a view of the world’s third largest canyon. Blue lizards scurry across the rocks.

In what seems like the blink of an eye, I’m back in the bustle of Johannesburg, "Jo-burg" to residents. Downtown from a distance looks like Denver –skyscrapers, shopping malls, and pretty houses with even lovelier gardens. A closer examination reveals the difference – neighborhoods with armed guards, barbwire, electric fences encircling schools and churches. So too, South African friendliness juxtaposes oddly with talk of carjackings and warnings not to go into downtown Jo-burg alone even by day.

A visit to the Apartheid Museum fills in the blanks. Over the past 400 years the land has been a bloody stage for warfare between groups. Tribes fought tribes. Dutch descendents (Boers) and British forces fought tribal armies. Boers and British fought each other.

It was in this conflict that the seeds of strife were planted in the late 19th century. In the second Anglo-Boer War, 28,000 women and children died in concentration camps. The brutality of that war planted a seed of nationalism among the Boer people that would bear bitter fruit. They would not be stepped on again. In fact, they would do the stepping.

Apartheid means “separateness” in Afrikaans (African Dutch). Building on the segregationist policies set forth in the British-Boer peace treaty, the white South African government enacted laws in the late 1940’s imposing complete physical and political separation between races. Blacks could not attend white schools or universities, visit white beaches or parks, ride on white buses or ambulances, or go to white hospitals. Blacks could not live in or visit white areas without a pass. Whites owned most of the land. Blacks were forced to live in designated areas which often had little or no infrastructure or resources.

While many protested the injustice by peaceful means, some turned to violence. Terrorism was met by state retribution. Innocents on both sides died. Hearts were hardened. Positions entrenched.

Out of the cycle of pain a few brave men and women came forward from each side to establish peace and justice. White South African President F. W. de Klerk worked with the long-imprisoned black leader Nelson Mandela and others to end apartheid in the early 1990s. In 1993 these two men shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding efforts.

Since then the winds of change continue to blow. The slow healing process continues. Inequities remain. Prejudice, depravity, uncertainty, and fear linger. A large number of white farmers have been murdered since 1994. Blacks in shanty towns look out at the opulence of downtown Johannesburg as through a closed window.

Nevertheless, things are getting better. People are working toward reconciliation just as they are here. We are not so different. The Apartheid Museum currently features an exhibit of American Jim Crow laws and segregation. The KKK robe I saw was a stark reminder of where we have been as a nation. Both countries are striving to move beyond the pain of the past. In the voices of South Africans, I could hear a love of country and a cautious hope for a future where all will share in the bounty and beauty of our respective nations.

My visit to South Africa reminds me that hope is possible because good people chose the hard road.

When I read about the innocent lives lost in Tel Aviv from a suicide bombing, I wish a de Klerk and a Mandela would rise up in Israel and Palestine to break the cycle of violence and retribution. A land with a history of many peoples, nationalism birthed out of atrocity, fear and prejudice, walls and check points, terrorism and state reprisals, innocents lost on both sides – these are similarities that can’t be ignored. Sadly, the election of Hamas, an organization soaked in innocent blood, is a bad sign that the cycle will continue.

Closer to home I wonder who among us in the US will rise up and reach out even as political divisions harden and rhetoric turns to vitriol. Who will take the first step? When I close my eyes and think of South Africa I see a path through thorns and rocks and a man named Nelson Mandela beckoning us to follow it where it leads.