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Whites Live the Black Life For a Weekend

February 6, 1991

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Eighty middle-class whites left their suburban comforts on a cloudy Friday afternoon and took a half-hour bus ride to another world.

They spent a weekend in Soweto, the huge black township outside Johannesburg.

The first Soweto Encounter was intended to break down barriers as the country moves toward an end to apartheid, the official policy of racial separation. More than anything, it illustrated the main question facing South Africa: How do whites and blacks learn to live together?

Abbey Makoe, a black journalist from Soweto, wrote: ″Like many other township residents, I hosted a white for the first time in my life. ... A few questions kept nagging me. What will it be like? How is she going to behave? I tried to remain natural.″

If the whites were nervous about how to act with their black hosts, they didn’t say so.

All those interviewed said they had been to Soweto before and considered themselves non-racist. The fact that they paid 40 rand ($16) for the Soweto Encounter rather than finding black friends on their own, however, indicated the stunted nature of race relations in South Africa.

Most blacks commute to work in white areas, but few whites enter the townships. White images of black life is shaped by news accounts of crime and political violence.

Koinonia South Africa, a Christian group against apartheid, has been taking whites on weekends in townships since 1986. This was its first to Soweto, the country’s largest city, where 2.5 million blacks live in everything from filthy squatter camps to middle-class homes and mansions.

Organizer Becky Ginsburg, a black American, said the weekend achieved its modest goal of introducing blacks and whites on a social level. She conceded that conservative whites, who need a Soweto Encounter most, never would participate.

″We had liberals, but most liberals in South Africa are liberal by default: They don’t know where else to stand,″ she said of the many whites who oppose apartheid but are not sure how much change they want.

Visiting whites expressed a sincere desire to help end racism, but seemed uncertain what to do beyond living the black life for a weekend.

″You get the opportunity to find out firsthand the terrible things they live through,″ said Dick Clarke, 67, as he prepared to board the bus.

Fred Merbold was disappointed to spend his first night in comfort with a middle-class family.

″The second night, I slept in a shack,″ he said. ″Three men in one shack, no lights, tap outside. It gave me a much more realistic experience than many other people.″

None of the whites was there long enough to feel the lack of amenities whites take for granted. Soweto has no shopping malls, no large grocery stores, few theaters and none of the well-tended parks common in Johannesburg.

They also were not affected by black factional fighting that has cost thousands of lives in the townships. Their weekend included group sessions on several subjects, but the whites spent most of their time in the daily routines of their hosts: cooking dinner, going to church, socializing with neighbors.

Of the 80 whites making the trip, about a dozen were journalists and members of their families. The others included at least a dozen foreigners or recent immigrants.

Each black host received 60 rand ($24), equal to a month’s rent on a small four-room house in Soweto.

How much the encounter can help improve race relations remains a question. Both blacks and whites mentioned vague plans to keep in touch, but the whites interviewed did not say they would try to sell conservative friends or relatives on the esxperience.

″I think the first thing to do is to go through the younger people, through schools and meetings, and then they can convince the older, conservative people,″ said Shoana Taylor, 17, one of the few who made suggestions.

Little media attention was given the event. The Star newspaper ran a column afterward by Ms. Makoe, who expressed relief that her white visitor was willing to bathe in cold water.

The Sowetan, South Africa’s largest black-run daily, carried a short article, mainly noting that nothing extraordinary occurred.

″By reading that no one was killed, the conservatives might be persuaded to give it a try,″ Ms. Ginsburg said dryly.

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