In an in-depth feature, written by contributing writer Walter Mead, Worth examined the economic state of a post-apartheid South Africa in October 1994, just five months after Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the nation’s first black president. At this juncture in the history of the country, Mead posits: “What can possibly hold South Africa together, with its history of conflict and pain? The common economic interest of its people, for one thing. A surprisingly robust patriotism, for another. But will these be enough? A journey across the nation offers some clues.

“My name is Themba,” said the young, unemployed black man. “In our language, it means ‘hope.’” I wanted to believe him.

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I felt conspicuous and exposed as I looked around the schoolyard of the squalid squatter settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Chilled by the wintry air of a June morning, I watched as mangy dogs hunted hopelessly for scraps of food. Overhead flew a “trash kite,” made from sticks and torn plastic from a dark green garbage bag. Angry shouts escaped from a nearby building where the local chapter of the Pan African Congress was meeting.


The PAC had acquired notoriety during the struggle for majority rule in South Africa as the most militant of the major black liberation groups. “One settler, one bullet” had been the PAC’s slogan then. Many news reports linked camp militants to the practice of “necklacing”—lighting gasoline-soaked tires placed around the necks of those deemed insufficiently enthusiastic in the revolutionary struggle. I knew I was the subject of the current debate. I was curious about how it would turn out.

I had come to this camp, Orange Farm, to test the future of South Africa. When I had met the national leaders of the PAC at their headquarters in downtown Johannesburg—only blocks from where a car bomb had killed dozens during the election campaign—they were eager to explain to me that the Congress had changed.

“We have a new slogan now,” Seleke Carter, the PAC’s deputy secretary general, had told me. “One child, one education.” The group had even had relatively kind things to say about the recently introduced—and very stringent—South African budget produced by Nelson Mandela’s transitional government.


“We think the priorities are good,” said PAC labor secretary Leshoana Makhanda. “We would like to see them doing something more for the poor, but we understand that they must keep the budget deficit under control. South Africa cannot afford to fall into the debt trap.”

“We have a new slogan now: One child, one education.”

If the PAC could so quickly make the transition from incinerating opponents to debating them on development priorities, then maybe what I was starting to feel about South Africa was true. Maybe the transition in South Africa was working. Maybe this country had a future on a continent that increasingly seems without one.

But the trip had suddenly struck me as very foolhardy at almost the moment we reached the unmarked, unpaved streets of the settlement. My PAC guides from the national office seemed as lost as I felt among the unnumbered houses—no mail, no trash collection, no services except electricity. When we finally found the school buildings, sheds actually, used for church and community meetings, they were marked with the violence of South Africa’s internal wars. Nearly every pane of glass had been broken by stone throwers during the years of boycotts and riots.

The arrival of two whites—myself and the intrepid South African photographer Herman Potgieter—had thrown the local membership into angry argument. Some clearly didn’t want to give up the old slogan. One resident greeted Potgieter with a raised fist and an enigmatic smile: “One settler, one bullet, man,” he said and, fortunately, moved on.

Themba, however, stayed by our side. He was from this village, and he had been active in the wars between black and white, black and black, black and government. But he wanted to talk about the future and not revive threats from the past.


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“I hope to enroll myself in university,” he said in remarkably good English. “I would like to go into journalism.” Not print, though, he said wisely. Not enough money in it. Too much work. Television would be better—or possibly radio.

Life wasn’t easy for him. His mother had a hard time feeding the family; there was no extra money for school fees. Jobs were almost impossible to find—unemployment in South Africa stood at about 48 percent for blacks, 4 percent for whites.

Most of what we Americans think we know about South Africa is wrong.

“But I think it is up to the individual,” said Themba. “You have to keep a positive attitude and keep studying and working. I do not want handouts; I want to work and achieve for myself.

“The greatest thing we have in this country is democracy,” he continued. “Now I have the chance to accomplish everything, and no one will hold me back.” As he talked to us, the debate in the schoolroom came to an end. Not everybody was happy to see us, but no one was carrying tires either.

All South Africa now has a chance to succeed. Will the country make the most of that chance? That is the big question in South Africa today and about South Africa in the rest of the world.

Last summer—winter in South Africa—I spent a month traveling thousands of miles and interviewing hundreds of people in southern Africa to get an answer. I met with political figures representing the extreme right, the extreme left, and the center. I visited the slums of Johannesburg and Cape Town and went to parties in their luxurious suburbs. What I learned was simple: Most of what we Americans think we know about South Africa is wrong.

There isn’t any secret about the challenges facing the new South African government. It must raise living standards for the country’s black majority fast enough to prevent a social explosion, but it cannot frighten off foreign investors or drive South Africa’s most talented whites to emigrate.

But it isn’t easy to figure the odds that South Africa’s people will be able to pull this off. The struggle against apartheid has distorted our view of South Africa in much the same way that this racial doctrine has perverted South Africa itself. We think of South Africa as a rich land, cursed by racial divisions but blessed with the sole modern economy in Africa. In reality SouthAfrica resembles the nations of the former Soviet bloc more closely than it does France or Italy. South Africa must modernize its economy and adjust to a new era of global competition at the same time it dismantles costly and inefficient state industries dating from the era of apartheid and sanctions.

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Fortunately, even if the outside world doesn’t see this, virtually everyone in South African politics understands the problem. From the Communist party to the Conservatives, South Africa’s politicians and its people know that they need to change. This is partly why the white government gave up the struggle against majority rule: They knew that any attempts by a white government to cut social spending or raise electricity and water rates to reflect real costs would set off an avalanche of violent protest. South Africans of all colors hope that black trade unions will accept austerity programs and economic reforms from a black government that they would not accept from a white one. They hope that foreign investment will return to a democratic South Africa.

The stakes are high for South Africa and indeed for the entire continent. Failure in South Africa could doom all of Africa to a generation of famine, pestilence and war. Success could convince international capital that Africa has a future.

The stakes are high for South Africa and indeed for the entire continent. Failure in South Africa could doom all of Africa.

A squatter camp outside Cape Town where passing cars were regular stoned during the struggle. Photo by Herman Potgieter

To understand South Africa today, you have to get beneath the surface. Literally. The vast gold mines under the Witwatersrand—an area of rolling hills in and around Johannesburg honeycombed with the deepest, darkest mines on earth—were the key to South Africa’s social and political evolution in the 20th century. The discovery of gold ensured the destruction of the rural biblical utopia of the Afrikaans-speaking farmers. After trekking far across the veld to get away from the British who ruled the coast, they were buried under a gold rush of English-speaking imperialists.

The mines shaped the history of blacks in South Africa too. Extracting the gold required building an advanced industrial economy thousands of miles from any major city. And it required a vast supply of cheap labor.

South Africa’s mineral wealth has not made South Africans rich, however. When I went to visit the Kloof mine outside Johannesburg, I had visions of gold nuggets waiting to be pulled out of the ground. “Forget the nuggets,” the engineers said. “It’s not that kind of a mine.”

Most of South Africa’s gold is extracted from a thin band of white-pebbled black ore laid down by prehistoric rivers. Mines can dive more than three kilometers below the surface as they chase the gold. One ton of ore, dynamited out of the earth, carried to the surface, pulverized, leached, and purified, will yield something like 20 grams of gold at the rich Kloof mine—worth about $270 at current market prices. At other mines, a ton of ore will produce half as much gold.

The main elevator shaft at the Kloof mine is about a kilometer deep—well over twice as deep as the World Trade Center is high. The elevator makes the drop in one fast, fell swoop, leaving its passengers to pop their ears as best they can.

Immediately after leaving the elevator, we walked through brightly lit tunnels as wide as a city street. Near the working face of the mine, however, the tunnels became narrower, the lighting less reliable. The temperature soared: It can easily go higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Glasses fog over; sweat runs freely down the body.

The mine seemed to squeeze in around me. Here at the working surface, the floor and ceiling of the mine are held apart by wooden posts and pallets; the enormous pressures from the mile of rock overhead split and compress these supports, and in places there is less than four feet of room between ceiling and floor.

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At the end of the line, where the mine meets the ore, I reached out and touched the bare rock reverently. There were no nuggets here, no gleam of gold: only a thin, clearly marked layer of white-flecked black rock squeezed by an ancient lava flow.

Mining has a bitter logic. Machines can carry the ore and crush it, but it must be dug and blasted out by hand—lots of hands. Most of that work is unskilled and dangerous. About 800 men—95 percent of them black—die every year in South Africa’s mines. More than 80,000 have died in the mines in the 20th century.

But the world price of gold, not the dangers of the job, sets an upper limit on the value of the work. South African mines with their hard-to-reach, low-grade ores are high-cost producers. About $200 per month is good base pay for a miner. And the jobs are getting scarcer. As the old mines become played out and no new deposits are found, South Africa’s gold production has seen a steady decline, falling 33 percent from 1972 to 1992.

The harsh economics of mining, in a sense, drove apartheid. Mining depended on huge quantities of low-paid, unskilled labor. Blacks were recruited in large numbers and then tightly controlled to keep wages and safety costs low. A two-tier wage system quickly grew up. Black miners were housed in cheap hostels provided by the mine companies. Skilled jobs were reserved for whites. Overtime, the skilled white workers gradually won the same kinds of rights and living standards enjoyed by blue-collar workers in countries like the United States. Largely unskilled migrant black workers remained in a kind of peonage. Families were deliberately broken up, as South African whites attempted to maintain the fiction that black mine workers were “temporary” residents of the places where they worked.

Now the mines reflect the difficulties of South Africa’s transition. Black miners have organized into unions and are demanding better access to skilled jobs, better health and safety conditions in the mines, equal treatment with whites, and better pay. White miners have mobilized their unions to maintain their privileges.

Clashes between black and white miners and between miners and management have become a daily event in the gold mines. On the day I visited the Kloof mine, fistfights broke out between blacks and whites over the customary practice that allows skilled—white—workers to jump the elevator line at the end of the day. Blacks are tired of waiting, sometimes for hours, while whites are unwilling to give up privileges they have come to take for granted.

“Mandela isn’t what we expected. I trust him to do the best thing for the country.”

In this zero-sum game, advances for blacks will have to come out of the paychecks of workers like those hanging around the Afrikaners bar in Rustenburg. This conservative mining community and Conservative party stronghold voted against former president F.W. de Klerk’s proposals to bring in majority rule.

As I looked around, cliché piled on top of cliché. Primitive paintings of Afrikaners performing folk dances hung on the walls; out back in an alley a family barbecued a sheep on a spit. Some of the men wore T-shirts that failed to cover their exuberant stomachs. I knew this bar. I grew up in the American South. I could have been in a redneck bar in a backwoods Alabama town.

I nibbled on biltong, a spicy dried meat snack that can be made of anything from warthog to cow, and struck up a conversation with the bartender, a man who also ran a small construction business. I asked him what he thought of blacks.

“I just can’t help it,” said the bartender. “It’s the way I was brought up. I can work with a black person; I have black guys who work on my construction crew. That’s one thing. But I don’t want to drink out of the same cup that a black person uses. And I couldn’t use the same toilet.”

“So,” I said, “What do you think of Mandela?”

There was a thoughtful pause. “You know,” said the bartender. “He surprised me; he surprised us all. People around here were scared at the election. People were buying up candles and bottled water. They thought there would be fighting. But now they feel pretty stupid. I’ll tell you, Mandela isn’t what we expected. He’s an honest man and an educated man. He used his time in prison well—he read books. Lots of books. I respect him. I trust him to do the best thing for the country.”

Race is, of course, what South Africa and the United States have in common. The American perspective on the country is dominated by a simple analogy: The struggle against apartheid was South Africa’s version of the American civil-rights movement. With Nelson Mandela starring as Martin Luther King, South Africa’s blacks and nonracist whites held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The analogy is simple and clear; unfortunately, it is also wrong.

Seeing South Africa this way is too easy. The whole country contrives to dupe the American visitor. South Africa even looks like the United States. Like most Americans, when I think of Africa, I think of the rain forests of the Congo Basin, the parklike savannas of Kenya, and the bleak waste of the Sahara. What I don’t expect is Cape Dutch colonial architecture, prairie landscapes and lush forests. The scrubby forest that covers much of the Kruger National Park looks like second-growth forest in the American South; the elephants, giraffes and rhinoceroses I saw lumbering through the bush looked as incongruous as they would have back home in Louisiana.

But the similarities faded as I spent more time with South Africans. South Africa’s whites-only minority government hasn’t just thrown in the towel to South Africa’s version of our civil-rights movement. It has done something much more wrenching: In American terms, it has given the country back to the Indians. And Nelson Mandela is more like South Africa’s Sitting Bull than its Martin Luther King.

Race is what South Africa and the United States have in common: The struggle against apartheid was South Africa’s version of the American civil-rights movement.

If South Africa’s whites had treated their “natives” the way we treated ours, Nelson Mandela would be on a reservation in the South African desert today. One can argue—and some South African whites do so passionately—that the difference between their country and ours is that their racial policies were less genocidal than ours.

The young white men in the Rustenburg bar should be the most bitter racists in South Africa. They—poorly educated Afrikaans-speaking whites from rural areas—are probably the biggest losers in the transition. Older whites will keep their jobs; better-educated whites will manage somehow. These kids are as close to trapped as anybody in South Africa.

And things are tough for them already. “I work in the platinum mine,” said a handsome young blond man, “and I make 1,200 rand a month, 1,500 if you count in the benefits.” At 3.6 rand to the dollar, that translates to $333 cash, $417 with benefits.

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“Is that good?” I asked, trying not to look shocked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m lucky.” Many of his friends couldn’t get hired at the mine and were working for less. How much less? Around 800 or 900 rand in garages, and even this wasn’t the worst. Some of them told me that they were taking what used to be “black only” jobs—as security guards, for example, where the pay was 25 rand a shift: $7. Waiters in restaurants can make still less.

How much would it take to support a family, I asked. They added up the numbers: 5,000 rand a month. That’s more than three times what the mine pays, almost 10 times what a guard makes.

How are you going to manage? I asked. They shrugged. They didn’t have an answer. Did they worry about it? Yes, they said. Often. But they didn’t blame the problem on the blacks. The economic situation had been getting worse for as far back as they could remember.

And, they told me, at least one thing had changed for the better. “No conscription,” they said. For 30 years young South African men had fought in places like Angola and Zimbabwe. Now all that was over, and if these kids were poor, they were at least free and alive.

I didn’t truly understand how war-weary South African whites are until I left the country. Tired of incessant talks about politics and economics, Herman and I took refuge at the Chobe Game Lodge, a luxurious resort inside the borders of an enormous national park in Botswana.

On lazy afternoons, we drifted down the river. Fish eagles swooped on their prey, herons hunted in the river, giraffes bent low to drink, and families of elephants with only the tips of their trunks showing swam across the stream. War and politics seemed far away—until Potgieter sketched in the history of this landscape.

Photo by Herman Potgieter

The Chobe River forms part of the boundary between Botswana and the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, formerly the South African dependency of Southwest Africa. When the Portuguese empire in Africa collapsed in the 1970s, South African and U.S.–supported forces fought Cuban troops with Soviet backing in Angola. Guerrillas fighting white rule in Namibia and South Africa used the area as an infiltration point; South African armed forces patrolled the strip and the Chobe River, sometimes engaging in firefights with Botswanan forces. All this was just one part of a war that raged, at one time or another, across the southern half of the continent.

Many of the veterans of this war now fly tourists over Victoria Falls or track game for the tourist camps in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. They aren’t ashamed of what they did. They tell stories of daring rescues and desperate battles around the campfires at night. But if the kids don’t want to fight, neither do the veterans. Armed white resistance is basically over.

Just how over is clear from talking to Constand Viljoen, widely considered the one man in South Africa with the ability to lead a serious white-resistance movement. I met Viljoen at a barbecue—South Africans call it a braaivleis—in a beer hall outside Pretoria deep in right-wing territory. The only blacks in sight were working in the kitchen, and the restaurant looked like the Afrikaner version of a Texas honky-tonk. The menu of steaks, spicy sausages and mealie pap with barbecue sauce (the South African version of grits and red-eyed gravy) enhanced the resemblance.

Viljoen, a former chief of the South African Defense Force, heads the Afrikaner Volksfront, the leading ultrawhite movement in the country. With his contacts throughout the military—where whites from the old days still dominate the chain of command—Viljoen could, if he wished, bring Afrikaner nationalism to a boil.

But Viljoen’s nationalism is surprisingly flexible. I knew his group had only agreed to participate in the recent elections in order to further its basic goal of a whites-only volkstaat, a place where Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans could enjoy “self-determination.” But as I talked to Viljoen and his associates, it seemed that what they were seeking was less an independent country than the survival of Afrikaans language and culture—something less, in fact, than the French Canadians have achieved in Quebec. The Volksfront doesn’t want a war either.

Of course, you could argue that none of these whites want to fight because they’ve won. That thought keeps running through my mind as I think about my interview with F.W. de Klerk, president of the last white-minority government in South Africa and second deputy president in the new Government of National Unity. We met in the state president’s offices from which he would shortly be evicted, but he didn’t look like a man who had just lost an election. In fact, he wore a smile as broad and toothy as the one with which the crocodile greeted the naive young elephant in Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child. And I asked myself the question that the elephant’s child should have asked himself before bending low to hear the crocodile’s whispers: Why is he smiling?

Before I met him, I had thought of de Klerk as South Africa’s Gorbachev—a man who had set out to reform a system and ended up presiding over its dismantling. But unlike Gorbachev, de Klerkstill has some control over the process. When Yeltsin took power, Gorbachev was finished; when Mandela took power, de Klerk was ready for the next round.

And history, de Klerk believes, is on his side. The African National Congress will break up under the strains of government, and the Nationalists will be ready to pick up the pieces, he told me. The 1994 election was a “liberation election”; people voted emotionally for the ANC. But the next election, in 1999, would be a different matter.

“I expect to win,” said the once and possibly future president, and his smile was, again, as broad and as toothy as anything you would see on the great, gray-green Limpopo River.

Even if electoral resurrection isn’t just around the corner for him, the transition to majority rule has still worked out better than de Klerk and the whites could have imagined five years ago. The ANC has rejected socialism, the PAC has renounced violence, the transitional constitution enshrines minority rights, and the need for a favorable business climate in the country provides the white minority with an ironclad guarantee that the government won’t redistribute wealth or do anything else that would frighten off skittish investors. White South Africans—most of whom grew up fearing an apocalyptic racial struggle that would send them into the sea—have come out remarkably well.

Now it’s the black politicians, the victors, who look beleaguered. Walter Sisulu, the ANC’s deputy president, is the leading figure in the ANC after Mandela. After a lifetime of struggle, Sisulu has gone from political prisoner to founding father. But while the gentle, grandfatherly Sisulu looks far younger than his 82 years, he seemed worried and tired when he spoke to me. In a low, almost mournful tone of voice, he cataloged the economic woes the new regime faces.

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When Sisulu and Mandela went to prison early in the 1960s, they thought of their liberation movement as part of a worldwide uprising by oppressed peoples against the capitalist order. The South African Communist party was their closest domestic political ally; the bright promise of an African road to socialism beckoned on the horizon, and Fidel Castro was the ANC’s comrade-in-arms.

African history has discredited the one-party state, the socialist model of development and other theories that [were] once believed.

Today communism has been revealed as a moral and economic disaster, African socialism is a sick joke, and Fidel Castro seems less like the wave of the future than the last of the dinosaurs.

Events in the rest of Africa were much on Sisulu’s mind when we met. “We can learn from the mistakes of others,” he said. “We have not changed, but we have developed.” In prison, he and his comrades collected newspapers from the rubbish bins and read about the collapse of African socialism. They drew their own conclusions.

Just as 30 years of race war changed the way whites weigh the future, so has the last generation changed the perspective of South Africa’s blacks. African history has discredited the one-party state, the socialist model of development, and other theories that these men and women once believed. For example, socialist experimentation has wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy, forcing the current radical Mugabe regime to undertake painful economic reforms throughout the ’80s. Now Zimbabwe is a little bit like an African version of Eastern Europe: The stores are full, but many people have no money to spend. Zimbabwe still pays lip service to socialist values—newspapers refer to people as “Comrade” rather than “Mr.” and “Mrs.”—but even the American embassy praises the government’s commitment to IMF–inspired reforms.

“We took the initiative on discussions for political change,” says Sisulu, “not the government.” Whites had learned that they could never win the race war; blacks learned that they couldn’t win it quickly. White-ruled South Africa was capable of mounting formidable resistance for many years, and the country, when the inevitable black victory came, would be in ruins. The bitter truth, one realized by the ANC, was that a peace settlement confirming white economic dominance in South Africa, and cementing South Africa into the world capitalist system, was the best available deal for South Africa’s blacks as well as for its whites.

If you’re looking for a radicalized country where race counts for more than anything, South Africa will prove a grave disappointment. One night I went to what I thought would be a citadel of radical-chic political correctness—a movie theater in a ritzy Johannesburg suburb hosting the first gay and lesbian film festival in South African history. I struck up a conversation with a thin black drag queen who told me he belonged to Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand, or GLOW, an organization founded by activists who thought that South African lesbian and gay groups weren’t radical enough.

“So who did you vote for in the last election?” I asked.

“I voted for de Klerk,” he said. “South Africa needs a strong opposition. If everybody voted for the ANC, we would have a one-party state and that wouldn’t be good for democracy.”

There are 27 million nonwhites in South Africa out of a total population of about 33 million: 23 million blacks, 3.4 million “colored” people of mixed ancestry, and 1 million South African citizens of Indian origin. All of them suffered discrimination under apartheid, but their political response to its end has been determined not just by race but by a more complex calculus. For instance, in the Cape, the mixed-race “colored” voters largely supported the Nationalist party against the Reverend Alan Boesakband the ANC. The result is that the western Cape, under apartheid considered the most liberal part of South Africa, is one of two provinces not ruled by the ANC.

The faces of South Africa’s tribes or the citizens of a multicultural nation. Photo by Herman Potgieter

“In the first place, you have to understand that the Cape coloreds were afraid of the ANC,” Ron Morris, a radical colored writer for the respected Cape Times—and an ANC supporter—told me at a seedy but hip restaurant in a colored area of Cape Town. Under apartheid, coloreds had certain privileges in the Cape. They were afraid that an ANC victory would mean affirmative action for blacks and discrimination against coloreds.

But race didn’t totally explain the vote. “Even my own mother voted against the ANC,” Morris said. “Religion,” he added, shaking his head.

Boesak, the local ANC leader, had been involved in an unpleasant divorce and had then married a white woman. “The women on the Cape don’t approve,” said Morris. “People just didn’t trust him anymore.”

South Africa’s politics seem to be flowing against the main currents of our century. Race, tribe, nation and class: These are the building blocks of Western political theory and practice. Communism marched under the banner of class war. Race war belonged to Hitler and the old white South Africa. Nationalism is creating charnel houses in Bosnia. And tribalism has led to mass murder in Rwanda. South Africa, like the rest of the world, is divided along these lines.

But an alternative to the grim politics of race, class, nation and tribe is sometimes visible in South Africa. I’m not sure what to call it. The best word for it might be patriotism: a loyalty to a common homeland and to the other people who live there, regardless of their race, tribe or class.

In most of Africa, the boundaries of countries do not coincide with ethnic divisions. Tribes, some of which are large enough to be considered nations if they were found in Europe, are divided among one or more countries; in many nations a dominant tribe controls the state for the benefit of a minority of the citizens.

This is how the old South Africa worked. The white tribe of Afrikaans speakers controlled the government for its own benefit and tried to play divide-and-rule with the other tribes.

The ANC believed in a different vision. The many peoples of South Africa could share a common political future and citizenship while retaining their own cultural traditions or maybe create a new multiracial South African culture and identity. This society would be something like the multiracial, multicultural United States. Before I visited South Africa, it never even occurred to me to ask whether a society like this could evolve in South Africa. I had seen the violence on television. The ANC’s vision was a pipe dream.

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But I saw the potential in this dream one day as clouds of smoke billowed over downtown Johannesburg. As winter winds whipped the flames from an out-of-control holocaust in a warehouse full of chemicals, I watched the integrated fire and rescue teams. As two firemen were hoisted to pour water onto the flames, I saw that one was white and one was black. The police at the scene were racially mixed; the doctor leading the emergency medical team was of Indian origin.

“I came back to this country two years ago,” the doctor said. “Before that, I was working in Egypt. There was no place for me here. Some of my classmates in medical school are practicing in the U.S. now, and they write to me saying that I should go there. But I can’t. This is where I belong. This is where I am needed.” Then somebody called him, and he went to direct the white technicians who served under him.

This potential South Africa will not be born easily. Many of South Africa’s tribes—white, colored and black—are still at war with each other and with the idea of a multicultural nation. The Zulus seem the most profoundly alienated. But even here there are hopeful signs. Many younger Zulus are urbanized and see themselves as South Africans first and Zulus second.

South Africa has an asset the rest of the world doesn’t understand—the determination of its races and tribes to work together.

For a country on the brink of civil war just a few months ago, South Africa was oddly peaceful during my visit. Even the continuing violence in the townships was economic, not political—battles took place between criminal gangs rather than political factions. From white and black, rich and poor, I heard the same things: South Africa must improve the living standards of its poorest citizens, but it cannot risk its future with dangerous economic experiments. Whites are resigned to seeing a higher proportion of spending go to black schools; blacks don’t expect miracles overnight. But conditions in the camps and black homelands are so bad that it will be easy to make big improvements. Families who used to walk 60 kilometers to a health clinic will only have to walk 30—and the clinic will be better supplied when they get there. Millions of blacks no longer live in fear of midnight police raids. Whites don’t have conscription; blacks don’t have pass laws. Even if the economy doesn’t improve soon, already many people are better off than they were.

South Africa has an asset the rest of the world doesn’t understand—the determination of its races and tribes to work together. Let me repeat a story told to me by some black intellectuals from Johannesburg. Shortly after his inauguration, Nelson Mandela went to a rugby game. Rugby is as white a sport in South Africa as hockey is in the United States. The band played both of South Africa’s national anthems. Mandela sang “Die Stem van Suid Afrika,” the anthem of the old white regime. Then the band struck up “NkosiSikelel’ i-Afrika,” the beautiful Xhosa hymn that translates as “God Bless Africa.” The crowd did its best, which wasn’t very good. With humor Mandela scolded them. They would have to do better. If he could sing their song, they would have to sing his. The overwhelmingly white crowd cheered him. Afterward, South African newspapers reported, the national rugby team was busy practicing the new anthem. It wanted to be ready for its next public appearance.

Reprinted from the October 1994 issue of Worth