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Sad postscript from Africa

We at NCR, like people everywhere, have rejoiced at the astonishing turn of events in South Africa, from apartheid to majority rule. We have lauded the peaceful transition. But peaceful is a fuzzy concept. The peace that came to South Africa is an uneasy one, and euphoria should not blind us to the grim realities with which blacks and whites, locked by history in a desperate embrace, are now beset.

When we published a story in our Nov. 20, 1998, issue about the struggle toward truth and reconciliation, a reader E-mailed an article from The Times of London, a heart-breaker, titled “Fly, the Beloved Country,” by Anne Paton, widow of Alan, author of Cry, the Beloved Country. However sad, the truth is better served by not hiding it. After 35 years in South Africa, Anne Paton, an Englishwoman, is leaving for good because she is “terrified.”

Her husband’s novel became one of the most popular books of the century. It tells with great compassion and in mesmerizing language the story of how blacks, the overwhelming majority, suffered in their own land. It was twice produced as a movie. Paton died in 1988 at age 85. “I am glad he is not alive now,” his widow writes.

Her fear derives from what blacks are doing to whites. It’s not speculation or hearsay. “I have been hijacked, mugged and terrorized,” she writes. And she’s 71 -- not that there is any good age to be hijacked. And again: “Among my friends and the friends of my friends, I know of nine people who have been murdered in the past four years.” The picture, of course, is not complete unless we mention how freely blacks are also killing blacks and how white rule in the first place sowed the seeds of poverty and depravity that produce this bitter harvest.

One might wish that Anne Paton didn’t get cold feet with victory in sight. One might wish she were more of a heroine -- never mind that she and her husband were high among the heroic for most of their lives. Surely she now has a right to write: “I do not want to be a target for the rest of my life. I want to live in peace.”

In Cry the Beloved Country, a character named Msimangu, who is black, says: “Because the white man has power, we too want power. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted. I have seen it often. He seeks power and money to put right what is wrong, and when he gets them, why, he enjoys the power and the money. Now he can gratify his lusts, now he can arrange ways to get white man’s liquor. ... I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it. ... I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”

The words and the book and the tragedy and the hope are bigger than South Africa. They’re about the kicking, screaming, striving, hopeful human condition. As our own nation, these days, tragically tears itself apart, its fabric sullied by rancor, hypocrisy, spite and self-righteousness, America, right now, is another country to cry for.

By amazing coincidence there is another morsel from The Times of London, reporting that British diplomats had advised The News Chronicle, a London liberal daily, not to publish articles by a certain Irish journalist then based in Trinidad because he was a “notoriously anti-British Catholic.” They were referring to Gary MacEoin, formerly editor of the Port of Spain Gazette before becoming a free-lance writer there. The year was 1947. The report of the naysayers was secret until last week. MacEoin went on to write for other publications, criticizing British policy in the Caribbean for trying to stop missionaries from setting up Catholic schools. There is little evidence that MacEoin, who now lives in San Antonio and writes frequently for NCR, has mended his ways in the meantime.

The NCR continues to cover South Africa's turbulent transition. See the following articles for more background:

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999