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Voices of Hope in the `New' South Africa

A South African expatriate casts her ballot in Boston and recalls a recent trip home, where she found frustration, hope - and talent eager to build a new and just society

WE started out our development program in South Africa slowly. We were very careful about process - involving all players in decisions, forming committees, tabling issues for discussion, voting on actions to be taken. New democracies take process seriously.

It has taken three years to build the foundation for our project, which provides training and assistance to rural and urban women - 90 percent of whom have been deprived of a formal education - engaged in microenterprise activities in South Africa's burgeoning informal business sector.

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For a South African who has lived abroad for over 20 years, this project provides the opportunity to return regularly. My most recent trip, just prior to the elections, shed poignant light on the hopes, fears, and dreams of South Africans at this time of monumental change.

Cape Town - We are taking a long afternoon walk (a Sunday family tradition) in Cecilia Forest, which drapes the foot of Table Mountain. It is a bright autumn day. White and ``colored'' (mixed race) families are out with their children, walking their dogs. Walkers greet each other civilly.

We have a young Zulu woman as a companion. Dansile is 21, full of energy and more interested in fashion than in politics. She talks about how much safer she feels here than at home in Natal's townships where, every day, someone is killed or has his house burned down. She will vote for Nelson Mandela, but has no defined hopes for a future South Africa. She is concerned mainly with completing her studies, getting a job, and finding a husband.

We attend a ``peace concert'' in Kirstenbosch Gardens. Four thousand Capetonians of all races have gathered. Each carries a candle and, when darkness falls, thousands of flames will testify to the desire for peace felt by most South Africans.

The concert-goers offer a hopeful vision of the future. As families and friends settle down with picnics, black and white children play hand in hand; mixed race couples openly embrace; and, for the first time, I see young white mothers with adopted black children on their hips.

Everyone senses that their being here together is deeply symbolic. This concert is a statement about making it work; about accepting differences; about the huge task of mending the rents in the fabric of society. We leave as the candle-lighting begins and, as we look back at the growing chain of lights, we feel a surge of hope.

University of the Western Cape - Over lunch, a business school lecturer, a liberal Afrikaner, discusses the future. I am surprised by his confidence, his optimism.

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He talks about how big business is coming to terms with the ``new'' market - the black population. South Africa is evolving; people will adapt.

Another lecturer voices the need to develop human resources at every level - in local communities, in factories, in universities. Her Centre for Adult and Continuing Education has developed workshops on race to help participants confront their deepest prejudices. Funding has been almost impossible to secure. Given the social dynamics and lessons learned from Zimbabwe and Namibia, this seems shortsighted of both donors and the ANC.

The drive back to Cape Town, along miles of squatter shacks, is sobering. Unemployment here is as high as 70 percent. Patience is on a short fuse. The African National Congress's slogans of ``Jobs, Peace, and Freedom'' had better be quickly turned into some measure of reality.

Lunch the next day with family friends of my parents' generation is a far cry from this scene. We are seated amid Cape Dutch elegance, being served by young, highly professional, black waitresses. Talk ranges from retirement and plans for overseas travel to home decorating.

The elections are barely mentioned, other than a few cynical remarks about future government mismanagement. These are not bad people. They cling to the hope that things can be made better for others without affecting their own lifestyles.

Johannesburg - I am interviewing candidates for the position of coordinator for my organization's training program. Each woman has an extraordinary story to tell and extraordinary strengths and qualities.

I am particularly impressed by two women who, as children of the 1976 Soweto riots, rebelled against the apartheid education system. One completed her last year of high school through a four-month correspondence course in the townships. She then got a partial scholarship to a Canadian university.

She now works in a program for disenfranchised youth. She was once one of them. She does not see these young people as a ``lost'' generation as so many do, but rather as a strong force for change.

The other young woman fled to Swaziland, and went on to university in the United States. When she returned nine years later, with her husband and children, it took more than a year to find a job.

She spends a lot of her time defusing high expectations. Women in the townships are angry, she says, impatient for change. They believe after elections they will get all they have been waiting for: housing, jobs, consumer goods. It is difficult to make them realize that economic change will take time. She is concerned about post-election rioting.

Northern Transvaal - It is a relief to leave Johannesburg, where all talk is of elections and violence. Here, we sit under a canopy of passion-fruit vines talking with women participating in a local credit program. They speak of how mini-loans have helped them. Nearly all are single heads of families. They eke out livings by selling used clothes, supplying firewood, hawking fruit and vegetables, or selling beer. They use their loans to expand or diversify their businesses. There is little talk of politics. Business has improved and they are pleased. The mood is anything but somber.

At a small country hotel a night later, we wait at the reception counter behind a young black man. The white clerk ignores him and asks if he can help us. We point out the young man in front of us. ``Oh, he can wait,'' the clerk says. The young man storms out. Old attitudes die hard, but a few years ago the young black man might have quietly waited his turn.

Johannesburg - Arguments rage around dinner tables about the ANC's ability to govern as dinner is served by black help in white gloves. White liberals defer to Mr. Mandela's leadership but secretly fear the changes to their lives he represents. Many seem able to forget the apartheid years and think Frederik de Klerk should be ``forgiven'' and have the chance to prove his National Party has reformed.

Two colleagues from local nongovernmental organizations have been named as possible delegates to parliament. When I visit, one is packing up her desk. She is wary about leaving the work she loves but excited about the opportunity to be involved in policymaking. ``If the bureaucracy of government gets too much, I'll be back here sooner than you know,'' she says.

In the meantime, we have found a candidate for our position. The search has been inspiring. Despite tales of venality and cynicism, of a lack of skills at the middle management level, I have met a host of talented people with vision and a deep sense of social responsibility.

As I leave for the airport, Johannesburg is a mosaic of election posters proclaiming peace, jobs, freedom, and education for all - never mind for whom you vote!

I see a young man on a street corner wearing a large billboard, sporting the words, ``Are you interested in scuba diving?'' Given the weighty promises all around him, the scene is comic. I chuckle, wondering if one day scuba diving, too, will be an option along with jobs, peace, and education for all South Africans!

Boston - The sense of hope I felt as I left South Africa was rekindled as I cast my vote along with hundreds of other South Africans at the State House in Boston. The road ahead for Mandela and his new government will be rocky. But the determination, strength of spirit, and capacity for change I encountered during my visit home assure me that people are ready to take on this challenge. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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