A baby boomer’s return to South Africa

We admit, when BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes his regular columns for The Denver Post, they’re not typically about baby boomers. But since he spent almost all of his working life as a network television news correspondent, Greg has had as interesting a life as any baby boomer could dream of having, and that’s what he draws on for his columns. We like to publish them from time to time, and because Greg has just returned from a trip to South Africa, that’s what this one is about.

I gave away a pretty nice pair of jeans the other day.

I gave them to a man in South Africa, a real good guy who was a lot of help while I was there. He is quite smart, he works very hard, and he always has a smile on his face. But he lives in a place where people grow up without quite enough food in their tummies and thus my waist is a good three inches thicker than his. Yet he wanted the jeans anyway, because he’s black.

The man who accepted Greg's gift of jeans.

The man who accepted Greg’s gift of jeans.

What that means is, he is achingly poor. He lives in a tin shanty town on the edge of Cape Town, one of more than a million black citizens squeezed into the same sad settlement. You’ll see similar shanties on the outskirts of virtually every town you pass, large or small. In my friend’s, they only recently got their own electricity. Some have a cold-water tap inside their shacks, but most people still haul heavy buckets from communal water wells. Last time I was there, a few years ago while shooting a documentary, almost everyone had to use public cinderblock outhouses; the ratio was 129 people per privy. It’s not a whole lot better today.

BoomerCafé's Greg Dobbs overlooking Cape Town, South Africa.

BoomerCafé’s Greg Dobbs overlooking Cape Town, South Africa.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. This isn’t the dream of South Africa.

Until only two decades ago, apartheid callously codified racial superiority for the nation’s white minority, subsistence and subservience for everyone else. As the novel called Tandia so succinctly says, apartheid was the rule of law, but it made a mockery of justice. When I covered South Africa on and off in the 1970s and 80s, everyone expected that black majority rule eventually would come, followed by a richer life for people long oppressed. But only through a bloody civil war.

One of many shantytowns in South Africa. This one is near Cape Town.

One of many shantytowns in South Africa. This one is near Cape Town.

Thanks mainly to the inclusive instincts of Nelson Mandela, that didn’t happen. Mandela argued (against the impulses of most of his comrades) that the equality they had long envisioned meant equality for all citizens, not just black citizens; that it could be violently counterproductive to punish their oppressors; and that through no fault of their own, the nation’s blacks didn’t have the training or schooling needed to actually run the country’s institutions, which meant educated and experienced whites must be kept on. Which is why, although war had seemed inevitable, apartheid came to a surprisingly peaceful end, stimulating a dream in the minds of the majority not just of a nation where all men were free but where, relative to how poorly blacks had long lived, now they would prosper.

Shantytown children.

Shantytown children.

Despite black majority rule, it’s still just a dream. For the documentary, I asked Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu why, in everything from housing to politics to education to economics, why is there still such a gap between rich and poor? He self-consciously laughed and said, “You know, original sin has in fact also infected us.” In other words, incompetence and corruption are color blind.

Racial injustice may be illegal in South Africa. Yet places like this still cover the landscape.

Racial injustice may be illegal in South Africa. Yet places like this still cover the landscape.

Racial injustice is no longer legal in South Africa, but that’s just the letter of the law. In spirit, I learned last week, life still seems to be framed for most people — of every race — in terms of black and white.

My friend kept saying, with patience I’d never be able to muster, that it’s only been 20 years. But there’s no denying, the dream has faded. Some in the majority have grabbed the brass ring, For the most part though, it’s still South Africa’s blacks who are opening the white man’s doors and mopping his floors.

My friend now dreams of a better life for his daughter. And she might yet get it. But as he told me, his mother had dreamed of a better life for him. Yet he still wants blue jeans from a visiting American. Even though he’s too skinny to fill them.

(All photos by Carol Dobbs)

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