Snapshots of Nation at its Birth

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Sunday, May 1, 1994

JOHANNESBURG—Not every little story got told in the telling of the story of South Africa’s epic election this past month. But not every little story got told.

  • In the plush Carlton Hotel, President-to-be Nelson Mandela was telling the nation how it had to get a handle on its crime problem. Two blocks away, in a spartan Methodist Church, friends were mourning Ruby N’Kosi.

Ten days ago, she was murdered in her home by four young black youths she caught trying to steal her stereo. She was 60 years old, and she and her husband had spent their lives fighting apartheid.

“The minister told us how tragic it was that just as she was about to realize her dreams and hopes and vote for the first time, she had to come across these young thugs,” said a friend, Themba Ntshalintshali.

  • When it comes to South African cities, Cape Town beats Port Elizabeth on any day, a taxi driver bragged one day in Cape Town.

“Once, in Port Elizabeth, I went to a white beach and a cop came and said you have to go to the colored beach. I said I am not colored. I am Muslim. But the cop said, ‘Well, we have a beach for Muslims, too.’

“Now, in Capetown, we don’t have that problem. You can go to a white beach and when the cop comes and says you have to go, some white person will come up and say, ‘it’s okay, he’s my housekeeper or something.’ ”

  • In addition to traditional African names, black South Africans parents often choose uplifting English words, such as “Pride,” “Honor” and “Justice,” as names for their children.

In that spirit, on the first day of voting for the new South Africa the first three babies born in Alexandria, a black township north of Johannesburg, were named Freedom, Happiness and Thankful.

  • In parts of rural South Africa, the value of women is measured by heads of cattle. Goodness Mhlungu, a Zulu from a remote village in Natal province, was worth 12 cattle to her father when he gave a man permission to marry her.

But, after attending a conference on women in Durban, she said she doesn’t want “lobola” paid to her husband, when her daughter gets married.

She said this as she sat with two foreign men at an outdoor cafe on a festive boardwalk next to the Indian Ocean. If her husband knew she was sitting with strange men, she added, he would beat her.

She said her husband knows how much she makes at her job, but she has no idea how much he makes at his—and that he pools both incomes and gives her an allowance. She loves her husband, but thinks he’s hopelessly traditional.

“Developing a woman improves the family, improves the country, much faster than when you try to develop and educate a man,” she said.

  • Cape Town is South Africa’s San Francisco—beautiful, insular and a little full of itself. Many of its citizens speak of how cultured and tranquil it is, compared to the rest of the country.

Yet the drive from the airport to downtown is highly dangerous. Motorists must run a virtual gantlet, because the only route in is flanked by black townships where the locals have made a sport of tossing rocks at cars.

It’s gotten so bad the city fathers are erecting walls on both sides of the highway, which is already marked by occasional gun towers, roadside police stations and army patrols atop overpasses.

“One of the favorite things is to throw fishing sinkers from the overpasses,” said a local travel agent, Barbie Sandler.

  • When he showed up to vote at a Soweto polling station, Sipho “Hot Sticks” Mabuse created almost as much a stir as when President F. W. de Klerk came by on a symbolic visit a couple hours before.

Mabuse, a popular musician said to be a favorite of the likely new president, Nelson Mandela, was wearing a bright white pantsuit decorated with musical instruments.

Several reporters tried to interview him, but he broke away in tears each time. “I’m just so happy, I’m afraid I’m going to collapse before I get inside,” he said, before vaulting ahead of the hundreds waiting on line.

  • Blood feuds are as much a part of rural Zululand as they are in the Mideast—but at least one man is breaking the cycle of vendetta.

Siphewe Ximba, a local African National Congress organizer, knows who killed his father and why–the killers, who didn’t appreciate Ximba’s political activities, mistook the father for the son.

“As a Zulu, I should prove my Zuluness by avenging his death,” he said. “But I don’t want to live with blood on my hand. As a society, we cannot progress this way. Besides, where will it stop? What other relatives will die?”

  • The murder of Amy Biehl, a white American scholar who was stoned and stabbed to death last year by a radical band of youths in a black township near Cape Town, continues to haunt her friends.

One of her American friends, Anna Wang, worked with Biehl on a voter-education project in Capetown, then moved to Johannesburg to take another voter-education job after Biehl’s heavily publicized murder.

“I haven’t been able to get her out of mind,” Wang said. “A couple weeks ago, I walked into a women’s room here in Joberg and there was this grafito on the wall that said something like, ‘A hundred blacks die every day and no one cares. One f—— white girl dies and the world goes nuts.’

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, yeah, that may be true,’ but it isn’t Amy’s fault. She recognized that so many blacks here have no future. But what made her special was that she died trying to give them one.”