“I am optimistic about the future of South Africa,” said journalist and author Donna Bryson.
As an Associated Press reporter based in South Africa on two occasions, she has witnessed that nation emerge from the brutality of the apartheid system to governance by peaceful elections. She was there in 1994 for the historic campaign, election and inauguration of Nelson Mandela as that nation’s first African president.
Since then the transfer of power to his successors (Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma) has occurred through democratic elections.
“The period from 1993-1997 when I was there was one of euphoria and hope,” said Bryson. “The need to respond to voting was tremendous and even today the voter turnout is still good,” she continued.
When she returned in 2008 South Africa was engaged in working out the complexities of the transition process. There had been much progress. Some manifestations are symbolic, such as naming the airport in Johannesburg for Oliver Tambo, the renowned leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and lifelong friend of Nelson Mandela.
There are also concrete manifestations. “When I arrived in 1993 the customs and immigration staff at the airport was all-white. Now they are primarily black South African,” Bryson said.
However, in 2008 South Africa was attempting to recover from a negative incident at the University of the Free State (UFS) in the central section of South Africa. It is also the heartland of the people known as Afrikaners, who established South Africa’s apartheid system of separation of the races. Their language is Afrikaans, not English, which, until recently, was used exclusively at the University of the Free State. The Afrikaners are descendants of the Dutch who began settling in South Africa in the 17th century.
In 2007 four white students opposed to campus integration produced a video in which they harassed the Black janitorial staff. Known as the Reitz video, it was posted on YouTube and went viral.
The university, theprovince and the nation was shocked and embarrassed since this incident challenged the idea that progress in race relations was taking place in South Africa.
Upon initiating routine journalistic investigations, Bryson discovered that race relations in South Africa were complex, and she was driven to engage in more profound analysis.
“I had the privilege of engaging in many long talks with people of all ethnic groups who cared deeply about their university and their country, and who believe that change is a challenge to which they are equal,” she continued.”
Bryson also contends that the subject of race relations is often discussed in easy clichés, and that everyone most guard against backsliding into suspicion, fear or stereotypes.
She conducted numerous interviews with students, faculty and other individuals in the Free State province.
Bryson disagrees that race relations in the Free State and its university are the worst in the nation. “Like the rest of the country, UFS and the Free State province ate attempting to transform to become a place where blacks and whites live and learn together,” she said. “It is a microcosm of what was happening in the rest of the country.”
Her extensive interviews allowed her to juxtapose two realities present in South Africa:
1) The action of the four students represented a desperate attempt to cling to the past of white superiority and black subjugation;
2) Actions of other students and faculty represent a commitment to creating a multi-cultural, multi-racial educational institution.
Her book “It’s a Black-White Thing,” consists of stories of the transformation process taking place at UFS. There are white students who refuse to speak Afrikaans because of their concern that black students will feel excluded.
Other white students are learning Sotho, an indigenous South African language, to be able to communicate with some Black students. South Africa has 11 official languages.
Bryson emphasizes the crucial importance of the black and white leadership at UFS and documents the programs, policies and changes they initiated. Equally important, she shares aspects of their personal stories that impact the challenges of creating a new South Africa.
She recounts a white former rector’s response to the Reitz video crisis. He realized that the ghosts of apartheid were present on the campus as well as the nation. “Transformation never stops,” he told Bryson. “It goes on and on.”
South African still has major problems, many of them economic in nature. The wealth gap between blacks and whites remains.
Bryson, however, believes in that South Africans have the capacity to “…be imaginative in finding solutions for the future” and that the nation possesses “…a sense of the possibility of reinvention and determination to turnhistory of hate and racism into fuel to empower those committed to change.”