Highway to a better future

MANY years ago, in 1966 - during the darkest days of apartheid - I worked as a young staff-writer for News/Check magazine in Johannesburg.

I had the great privilege of being assigned to cover a black musical production somewhere in the deep south-western suburbs of Johannesburg. It was of the King Kong genre, full of rhythm, colour and emotion. It lasted for hours. Our photographer and I were the only whites present.

Suddenly I had a feeling of how very pale - how lacking in spontaneity and colour - we must have appeared to those enjoying the music, not only in the way we looked but in our approach to life.

It was my first visit to a black community.

Later, in the middle 1980s when I was a diplomat on parliamentary duty in Cape Town, my wife was involved with the development of a crèche in Crossroads. She persuaded the up-market pre-primary school that my three-year-old son attended in Cape Town's southern suburbs to "twin" with the Crossroads crèche.

Most of the parents thought that it was a great idea - but were hesitant about visiting Crossroads for the opening of the crèche. My wife and son were warmly welcomed - not only at the opening of the crèche but afterwards in Mama Luke's cosy home in the township.

For most whites - even those with the best intentions - townships like Crossroads and Khayelitsha were dangerous and threatening places. One sped past them and averted one's eyes from them on the road to the airport or to Somerset West.

Whites' perceptions were still dominated by the spectre of crime, by memories of the violence associated with the mid-eighties, and by incidents like the murder of Amy Biehl. These perceptions did not disappear with our first democratic elections in 1994. They have persisted until today - and with them many misperceptions of the black communities that surround our cities.

The fact is that many white South Africans have visited London, Paris and Rome far more frequently than they have visited Langa, Meadowlands or Mamelodi. Mind you, we are not the only people who do not know their neighbours.

I lived in New York for five years between 1978 and 1983. Few people in Midtown Manhattan, where I lived, ever visited Harlem or the depths of Brooklyn. Once I went to South Bronx with a city tour, but no-one ever went there on their own.

Now I live in Cape Town. Like many of our cities it is more an archipelago - a collection of islands - than a coherent urban community. People from my privileged island in the southern suburbs still very seldom visit the inhabitants of the islands of Mitchel's Plain or Guguletu.

All this is exacerbated by the divisions of the past: by the fact that for most of our history we were confined to our racial enclaves by apartheid. However, our divisions go beyond race: hardly any of the white English-speaking inhabitants of the southern suburbs ever travel to the white Afrikaans islands of Parow and Belville.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that we have in many other respects made great progress since 1994. I am encouraged by the vibe that I pick up in increasingly multiracial schools, restaurants and hotels.

Last week on a domestic flight it was great to see white and black colleagues interacting naturally, travellers chatting with fellow passengers from other communities, and a white oom (uncle) offering to hand down luggage from the overhead rack to a black businesswoman waiting to exit the aircraft.

Slowly, but surely, we are beginning to get to know one another better - as neighbours and as fellow South Africans.

That is why the Super 14 semi-final and final matches at the Orlando stadium in Soweto were so very special. The crowd that usually attends Loftus-Versveld in Pretoria travelled much further than the 75km to Soweto: they made a journey to another world - a world that has existed all along right on their doorsteps. The warmth with which the Blue Bulls and Stormers supporters were welcomed by the people of Soweto was, for me, one of the most heartening developments since 1994.

We talk a great deal about the benefits that South Africa will derive from the World Cup: the tourism, the publicity, the infrastructure - including the Gautrain and the shiny new airports.

However, the greatest legacy of the 2010 World Cup might well turn out to be - not the highways and the stadiums - but the bridges that it will help to build between our communities. We must strengthen them and make more frequent use of them. We must ensure that they become part of a highway to a common and better future for us all.

lThe writer is executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation