January 13, 2002 - San Fransisco Chronicle: RPCV Chris Matthews returns to COS South Africa

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2002: 01 January 2002 Peace Corps Headlines: January 13, 2002 - San Fransisco Chronicle: RPCV Chris Matthews returns to COS South Africa

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RPCV Chris Matthews returns to COS South Africa

Read and comment on this story from the San Fransisco Chronicle on RPCV Chris Matthews and his recent trip returning to Africa where he served as a Peace Corps Volunter at:

Cape of Good Hope *

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Cape of Good Hope

Jan 13, 2002 - San Francisco Chronicle Author(s): Chris Matthews

In this time of global trouble, I send you a postcard of hope.

It's the holiday picture I carry in my heart of a thousand South Africans of every race enjoying a jazz concert together and, with it, this beautiful land's resurgent national vitality.

The scene is Cape Town's zesty waterfront area. The group making music is Johnny Cooper's Big Band. The selections are hits made famous in the 1940s by Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Louis Armstrong. The crowd is a bright emblem of the country's diversity: three-quarters black, the rest white or of mixed race.

Jazz is the unifier of this marvelous tableau. It's gotten people, regardless of color, clapping and tapping to the beat of "Mack the Knife," sharing the dreaminess of "My Funny Valentine," the agreement that, if only for this moment, "What a Wonderful World" it truly is.

Unfortunately, this is not the New Year's greeting card we received in the year-end news magazines. Their editors used holiday issues to explain the widening rift between East and West, Christian and Muslim.

Here in South Africa, I find evidence of social forces pulling people together. What if people learn to co-exist, even share a national life together? What if the old oppressor learns to deal with the formerly oppressed as a true compatriot? What if the victim of past subservience accepts this change of heart and manner? What if the forces that unite and bind societies outwit those pulling them apart?

Here on a two-week visit with my family I saw that "what if" in action.

People share their nation with an unexpected ease in the daily encounters between whites and blacks.

It's a scene of harmony and hope I didn't expect. Not in South Africa, not yet. As a Peace Corps volunteer in this region more than three decades ago, I spent two years witnessing the regular victory of racial rivalry.

The same country that pioneered the heart transplant was obsessed with preventing intimacy between men and women of different backgrounds and had absurd "immorality" laws. More demeaning still was the brutal enforcement of white supremacy, with bosses barking orders and ridiculing the blacks carrying them out.

Given the bad blood, I had no reason to believe that replacing white rule with black would change the terms on which people dealt with each other. One brutality, I feared, would be traded for another.

Yet I don't think it's happened that way. What surprises me is the strong element of respect and comfort in face-to-face dealings of blacks and whites.

So, I return home with more optimism than when I left. Just as there is unexpected trouble in the world, there are also unexpected possibilities. There are forces -- not just jazz -- bonding people together, just as there are those -- think of religion -- capable of driving them apart.

No one ever thought that change would come peacefully to South Africa. Holding those first democratic elections in 1994 showed that blacks and whites could vote together. The question was whether they could live together.

I now know that they can.

So, I share with you a reason for hope. It is not the rioters in the street who matter in the end. It is the people who build and advance societies.

Call me an optimist. I know from reading history that the long course of human experience leads toward civilization.

I possess no grander souvenir of this spectacular Cape of Good Hope than the vivid, palpable memory of men and women, black and white, sitting together on a warm summer evening and smiling to the seductive optimism of "What a Wonderful World."

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