MAXWELL:  A future shackled to fear

12/18/1995 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Alan Paton, author of the 1948 worldwide best-selling novel Cry, the Beloved Country, died in South Africa in 1992. The book, far ahead of its time, is a passionate plea for racial equality in a black man’s homeland under white rule. Some people say that the timing of Paton’s death was opportune, for if he were alive today, he soon would die of heartbreak over the chaos tearing apart Johannesburg and other South African cities.

Paton anticipated and longed for the dismantling of apartheid and the coming of a President Nelson Mandela. But he did not foresee the violence and fear that have emerged. As the world watched, Mandela assumed office on a wave of euphoria and hope. But after more than a year of Mandela’s leadership, whites such as Heidi Moller, who supported the election, are bitterly disappointed.

“You know, last year I was so elated _ standing in the queues to vote was the most incredible feeling,” she told the New York Times. “It was the first time I could walk around and look everyone in the eye. I was acquiring my freedom too.”

But that was before Moller’s husband was shot at from a passing car while working; before he fought with carjackers and was shot in the foot; before one of her close friends was shot and her husband killed as the children looked on; and before Moller herself was attacked by four young black males as she backed her car from the garage.

Moller’s experiences, far from being isolated, are epidemic in the streets and suburbs surrounding Johannesburg. Whites who once lived relatively worry-free now are armed and have turned their homes into citadels _ complete with electric wire, burglar bars, razor wire, spikes and “rape gates” to protect the women’s bedrooms. Many whites literally are afraid to leave their homes.

Besides the crime and violence, whites also worry that the public school system is collapsing and that their children cannot receive a good education. Such fear and uncertainty are bad news for the nation because whites are leaving South Africa permanently and at a higher rate than ever before. They are taking their talents, skills, expertise, business savvy, credit worthiness and, of course, their wealth with them. This the country’s most educated elite.

No one knows the long-term impact of this exodus. But Mandela is deeply troubled because, at the very time that he is struggling to improve employment, housing, health care and education for the disenfranchised, the people who can help make these promises come true are departing. “Why should we not pacify (the whites)?” Mandela said to militant black leaders. “In putting aside the quarrels of the past, we have a country which has the opportunity to acquire education, skills and expertise in many fields. We want this.”

Obviously, Mandela is right. South African blacks as a whole _ because of generations of dispossession _ are unable to maintain the nation’s services and economy at previous levels. The nation’s future boils down to one word: fear.

Mandela is trying to create a modern police force dedicated to law and order rather than to the repression and inhumanity of old. But with this effort, like so many others, Mandela cannot find the money or the trained teaching personnel to carry out his plans.

Whites must feel safe if South Africa is to resemble the nation that Alan Paton envisioned. Unfortunately, though, Heidi Moller probably speaks for all other whites who are packing up: “I’m not prepared to sacrifice my future and my children’s future. I just don’t want to live with this fear. To be so tense. To go out of the driveway and think: Is the alarm on? Is there anyone behind me?”

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.