Don Mills: Grim look at apartheid makes S. Africa reform more striking

A woman who attended the Tuesday memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela had a photo of him in her hat.
A woman who attended the Tuesday memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela had a photo of him in her hat. AP

The death of 95-year-old Nelson Mandela last week brought back many memories, including a recent late October visit to his old home in Soweto.

More than 40 years ago a group of editors, mostly from the South, accepted an invitation from the South African government to see how the people lived there.

Apartheid was in full bloom. No other place contained such a varied cultural mix. It was the robust blend of nations, races, cultures and languages that gave Johannesburg its unique character.

A black had to obtain a pass from a main office in this city to live or work in Johannesburg, or, as some people call it, Joburg. If caught by police at an out-of-place spot, they could end up in jail or be transported to another part of the country. The regime of regressive apartheid came into full power in 1948.

Among the most immovable legacies of apartheid and the rigid geographic boundaries that separate the races was overcrowded, poverty-ridden Soweto, a township 12 miles from the main city and the home of Mandela. It was the only urban place where black people, some 4 million, were permitted to live.

They mostly worked long hours in the gold mines near Johannesburg, known then as the richest gold deposit in the world. Today, school children and others pass through Mandela's old home, seeing how he lived before he was imprisoned for fighting apartheid.

Colored, or mixed-race people, were restricted to their own areas as well, also on the periphery of cities. People of Asian descent were required to live in monoethnic suburbs. too. The nicest suburbs were for whites.

For this Lexingtonian, the separation of the races was most evident at a local race track. The South Africans love their horses and love to bet heavily on them at the races.

So, when we entered the track, we were directed to this large grandstand only for whites. Another one in similar size contained blacks and a third one was for "colored," a mixture of blacks and whites, Indians and Asian people. All three grandstands were separated by fences.

We were shown schools, hospitals, universities; had meetings with people of several races; saw other cities including Capetown and Pretoria, which was the nation's capitol, plus a tour of Kruger National Park for wildlife game.

But the editors were not impressed, including Ray Jenkins, editor of the Montgomery Press in Alabama. home of then-Gov. George Wallace.

The population of South Africa at that time was about 3 million whites, who came mostly from Europe, and more than 20 million blacks who did not vote and had no representaives in Parliament. All that changed after Mandela became president in 1994. He was the first democratically elected officeholder, a man strongly revered by blacks.

After serving 27 years in prison, Mandela was released Dec. 12, 1989 in Capetown by President F. W. de Kerk. Both later were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, de Kerk for his ability to peacefully transfer South Africa from colonial apartheid to a democratic country in 1994, and Mandela for his long opposition to apartheid.

Today, Johannesburg is one of Africa's most thriving metropolises with successful businesses, people living everywhere in the city and boasting the tallest building at 50 stories in all of Africa. The former gold-rush city has wealthy whites and wealthy blacks and many other citizens, no longer confined to a given area.

On the negative side, crime in some areas still remains stubbornly high, unemployment is around 25 percent, although many individuals have small businesses operated out of their yards, and most citizens live in gated residences and communities. Thus, Johannesburg still has many problems and is a long way from being perfect.

But the city, thanks to hosting the Soccer World Cup in 2010, has revitalized much of downtown, which includes the three-year old mass transit sytem with more miles planned.

Young Johannesburgers from different backgrounds are working together to remake their city for the next generation, showing off its virtues. Parts of Joburg's once-decrepit inner city have turned into a vital gathering place, including an old parking garage that now houses a food and fashion market and a one-time alcohol warehouse that is today stocked with galleries and restaurants.

New visions seem to pop up every few months in this fast-changing dynamo of a blossoming city which took a giant step forward when Mandela, who believed in forgiveness rather than being angry and resentful, became the country's first black president.