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Seeing South Africa

It's been more than 10 years since the end of apartheid. So how have things changed? Travel the countryside and talk to its people, and a tantalizing picture emerges.

By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page P01

"Apartheid made me stronger. It made me what I am today," Naomi tells me, as we gaze off her balcony onto the choppy waters of Knysna Lagoon and the sweep of green hills that frame it.

My eyes snap away from the view to study her face. Most of us would consider Naomi a victim of apartheid, the brutal set of race laws the South African government enforced until just over 10 years ago, when Nelson Mandela led a peaceful transition to democracy. Naomi prefers not to see it that way.

A digital camera draws a crowd in a Cape Flats township. (R. Paul Herman)

A July 11 Travel article about South Africa incorrectly referred to Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront as the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. The article also said that South Africans drive on the right side of the road; they drive on the left.

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"We knew we had to work for every little thing we got. I feel like it gave me the strength to make my dreams a reality," she explains.

No kidding. Naomi has run a bed-and-breakfast out of her home since 1999, and now her sights are set on opening a "real" hotel.

A decade ago, it would have been nearly impossible for a traveler to encounter somebody like Naomi Fick. Under apartheid, people of color had little opportunity to participate in the tourism business -- or, what there was of it. Back in 1993, with the country emerging from international sanctions, there were only 618,508 overseas visitors; by last year, that number had jumped to 1.88 million, making tourism the country's fourth-largest industry. And according to the government, a development program has created more than 600 black-owned tourism businesses, along with 10,000 jobs.

South Africa has exotic animals, wine valleys, spectacular beaches and stunning scenery, not to mention a Southern Hemisphere location that lets its top overseas visitors -- Europeans and Americans -- swap winter for summer. My husband, Paul, and I wanted to visit for all of the above. We also hoped to get a feel for South Africa's people, and how they are faring in this reinvented country. On our weeklong road trip east from Cape Town to the country's famed Garden Route, we made a pact to seek out both views and points of view.

Cape Town Sampler

Cape Town is South Africa's No. 1 destination for international visitors, and we have one day to sample a dizzying number of offerings. To cope, we've quashed our independent streak and hired guide Ezzat Davids, 27, who scoops us up in a minivan. Ezzat tells us he's Cape Malay, a deceptive term for people who generally aren't Malaysian but descendants of Indonesian slaves shipped over by the Dutch.

Under apartheid, Cape Malays were classed as "colored," a catchall for some 8 percent of South Africans who were neither pure black nor lily-white. "They used to do the 'pencil test,' " Ezzat says. "They'd push a pencil into your hair and if it fell out, you could be classified as colored. They measured the widths of noses, too." For a moment I think, I don't want to know about this; it's in the past. But then I realize I can only understand where South Africa is today if I can grasp where it's been.

Ezzat drives us to the Cape Flats townships -- "township" being the euphemism for settlements where non-whites were confined. It's astonishing to think that whites, a mere 10 percent of the population, managed to wield this kind of power for so long. Khayelitsha, a black township, is home to nearly a million souls, a vast expanse of tiny shacks cobbled together with corrugated metal and plastic sheeting. We roll down narrow streets, dodging scrawny dogs and barefoot kids who dance alongside the van. On a corner, oil drums slashed in half have become barbecues and women flip chunks of meat while customers wait.

"Can we get out?" I ask. "It's safe," Ezzat says, anticipating a question I hadn't posed. As we hop down, music spills from a small cinderblock building, a church with no pews. Through the open door, I see women standing in a circle, singing, swaying, clapping. We walk down the street to the Philani Nutrition Project, a community-based program where children are nurtured while their mothers weave rugs or learn silk-screening. A small shop sells their work, an example of how tourism mingles with the new economy.

In the old days, few whites would dare enter a township. Now here I am, buying a T-shirt that proclaims "Pleasure Joy Ecstasy."

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