SOUTH AFRICA's democracy 10 years:

The story of the Madonna of Excelsior - same God, separate churches

open | 07 April, 2004

EXCELSIOR. The young pastor Corneil Oberholzer stands firmly in the pulpit with his hands on each side of the desk, wearing a blue business suit. He holds the Sunday sermon in the stately Dutch Reformed Church in Excelsior, a small 'dorp' some 50 km north west of Blomefontein in the Freestate.

Today's sermon is about the 'small matter' that people should not think they can play God. The Pastor refers to the biblical story of when King David made sure that a minion was killed in the war that he could seize his beautiful wife.

It is not difficult to draw parallels to how many of the churchgoers, all white, played God during the fifty years since South Africa's white with laws and brutal power kept their black compatriots in poverty and humiliation.

Apartheid may be gone, but its invisible hand continues to control whites and blacks attitudes alike. "We go to our church and the blacks goes to theirs, That's how it is. Neither we nor the blacks are interested in socializing, we want to have our own cultures", says Johannes de Lange, a white retired electrician I meet outside church after mass.

I have traveled to the Excelsior on the eve of the country's third democratic election, April 14, to see how a small community like this has been affected by time, the fact that South Africa now has put ten years of democracy under its collective belt.

During the three days I visit Excelsior, with 750 whites who live inside the community, and 13,000 blacks living outside the city in a so-called township, I see the same familiar pattern repeating itself: white's live their lives and blacks their s, and never the two meet on neutral ground.

In the 1970s Excelsior became known throughout South Africa and internationally due to an unusual court case: five prominent white men and 14 black women were prosecuted for having had sexual relations. They had "violated" the "immorality act"which used to ban sexual relationships between the races.

The scandal was earth-shattering. One of the accused, the mayor of Excelsior, shot himself. (A peculiar irony is that his light-skinned offspring, a large sturdy, taciturn woman who remain in the black township, today is herself a councilor in Excelsior.) "These sexual encounters were not in themselves unusual; it happened everywhere, all the time", ays Noleen van der Walt, a municipal politician of the New National Party (formerly the ruling Nationalist Party) in Excelsior, whose husband defended the men in court.

The difference, she said, was that in Excelsior the deed was disclosed and led to indictment and became a national political issue.
The whole episode, and with it Excelsior's decades old trauma, has been brought back to life recently with the publishing of the award-winning novel  "The Madonna of Excelsior" by celebrated South African writer Zakes Mda, who, in the book brings the matter way beyond 'race relations' when he describes the rape and pure sex orgies white subjected black women to - mostly their employees. They filled their maids, nannies and cleaner women with spirits and scared them to be silent about it and not tell their men who all tended to work in far away mines.

Then it was possible for white men to behave as pure pashas. They could force the hand of the black women who worked as domestic servants and in the fields. The women did not dare murmur.

Today, in that regard, morals have changed dramatically and harsh punishments are meted out against rapes.

"Whites can for sure no longer play god. Whites here in Excelsior knows what the consequences of such abuse would be to day. But when you go into the only bar in the white part of town you see in their eyes that they have not changed a bit. What you meet is silence and hostility", says  Sinkie Moekete, whose mother was the real Madonna of Excelsior, one of the black women who were prosecuted after she had given birth to a colored child in 1971.

Hence Sinkie Moekete's half sister is the daughter of a white man in Excelsior. But Sinkie Moekete does not know who he is. He only knows that his family fell apart.

" Everything changed after the events of 30 years ago. My mother started to drink alcohol after my half-sister was born. My father, who worked for the telephone company, stopped coming home", says Sinkie Moekete.

He was, he says, assisting the author to do research for the book. Sinkie Moekete has tried to get other families with similar stories to speak out, to get it all out in the open and finally be able understand what happened and what the consequences where.

The task was almost unsurmountable. Black and white alike in Excelsior continued to put a lid on the episode.

Just about everyone I asked in Excelsior professed that they hated Zakes Mda's book and that they never would read it. "The book is a pure lie, do not believe a word of it. You come here and you think you know, but you don't know a thing, like me, how blacks are. They only want allowances and work as little as possible. If we (whites) disappeared, the economy would collapse", says Gian Wessels, a leading white farmer in Excelsior. On the surface it is easy to paint a negative picture of Excelsior.

Nevertheless, explains the libraran at the town libary that the book is one of the most popular in the Excelsior's library. Only Nelson Mandela's Long walk to freedom is more popular.

Excelsior is in that sense a microcosm of South Africa as a whole. Whites play their golf and go to endless dinner parties while  black maids take care of their children and cleans up the mess. The white farmers employ the men and pays them minimum wages - ZAR 800 per month. They continue to rely on seasonal workers to avoid having to give workers permanent employment. All in all very much the same procedure as during apartheid days.

Still, much has happened in Excelsior the past ten years. In the fine town hall there is, since 1995, a ANC mayor. Fifty blacks have bought a house in the white part of Excelsior and live in good neighborly relations with their white neighbors. And in Mahlatsweta, the black township, inhabitants now have electricity, water, a paved road, a nice new school and a well-stocked library. Several hundred new houses have been built for free in an attempt to a severe housing backlog.

"I've got the house for free by the government, but I have no job", says Samuel Tlome, who lives in a shack with 18 family members until the  simple cement structure is completed.

It's Friday night and we are invited to come along to the most popular kwaito bar (kwaito, South Africa's domestic pop music) in Mahlatsweta where trendy young people express their individuality through dance and fancy fashion clothing in much the same way as in the larger cities.

A majority of them, however, are unemployed. For now they can only dream of one day sharing some of South Africa's vast abundance.

"Honestly, w e do not have a chance. We live off our parents and grand parents pensions", says Rapulane Likhoele, a 26-year-old unemployed who at home.

The great leveler, the way out is to - against all odds - do well at school. They can apply for scholarships and move on to secondary schools and universities in the provincial capital of Bloemfontein.

"Whites here have the same old negative attitude towards us as before and pay starvation wages", says Perseverance Nkati, who is on leave from studies at a technical school in Bloemfontein.

Excelsior, for sure, could be a good place to live in, according Perseverance Nkati. But he feels he has no place here.

Not for as long as whites and blacks continue to pray to the same God in separate churches.

CHRISTER L. PETTERSSON

(A Swedish version of this story was published in Dagens Nyheter April 2004.)

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