'There's Racism, but Not in Public': South Africa's Apartheid Regime Ended in 1994.

But a spate of killings and a video in which white students degrade black women has reminded the country that race is still a divisive issue.

South Africa


The Guardian ( London)
March 7, 2008 Friday

By Chris McGreal

Fourteen years after Nelson Mandela proclaimed the birth of the rainbow nation after 350 years of white oppression, a comedy has popped up on South African television called Coconuts. By the end of the first episode, a white family, who takes a black maid on its caravan holiday so she can do the dishes, has been punished for its prejudice and turned black. The black maid wakes up to find herself much paler.

From then on it is debatable whose misery is greater – the shocked former white people who blame the new order for their situation ("I’m telling you, it’s this damn government. This affirmative action thing, it’s gone too far"), or the maid who laments the misfortune of being black under apartheid and white under African National Congress rule. The programme runs headlong in to issues underpinning race relations in the new South Africa: white grievances at loss of privilege, a new generation of teen racists in schools, and what sometimes seems to be white people’s instinctive fear of black people in groups ("You’re scared? I’m the only white woman in a room full of darkies," says the maid to the family).  

Even the programme’s title touches a nerve, with "coconut" an increasingly popular form of abuse directed at black people who question the new orthodoxies on race (black on the outside, white on the inside). But perhaps most telling is that the comedy has resonance in the new South Africa.

A generation after Mandela walked free, race sometimes seems as dominant an issue today as it was in the darkest years of apartheid. No more so than during the past week as South Africa has grappled with the significance of a video showing Afrikaner students at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein forcing black women cleaners to drink beer, perform athletics and then eat stew that one of the young men has urinated in. The women can be seen on their knees, eating the stew from metal cups and then spitting it out into buckets.  

The video prompted days of demonstrations on the campus, with some black students warning white people that they were no longer welcome at the university, and provoked angry denunciations across the country from politicians, teachers and civil rights groups. Eleven Afrikaner organisations issued a joint condemnation of the video as "disgusting". "We can not allow that individual students brand the Afrikaans community," the statement says. "These students are not typical of the broader Afrikaner community’s values. This is simply not us." That is not a universal view.

"Look at this video and you see the real South Africa," says Billyboy Ramahlele, the university’s director of diversity. "The real tragedy is that these boys don’t see what it is they’ve done wrong. It’s not just about what’s in the video, but why they made it."  

The uproar follows other recent incidents that have raised questions about how much has changed since apartheid ended. In January, a white teenage farm boy, Johan Nel, walked into the black settlement of Skielik in the north-west of the country and shot dead four people: a mother and the three-month-old baby on her back, a 10-year-old boy and a man. Community leaders said Nel’s actions were a reflection of the deep-seated racism that still infects many rural areas. Last year, four affluent young white men were sent to prison having, as 16-year-old high school students, beaten a homeless black man to death in Pretoria. One of the four told the court that the killing wasn’t racist because he would have done the same if the victim had not been black. The judge disagreed.

There was also a debate about hidden racism last month after a white man mistakenly sent a text message to his maid calling her a "kaffir bitch". He intended the message for his wife.  

The accusations are not all one way. A black journalists’ organisation prompted a heated debate last week by barring white people from a briefing with the new ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, drawing accusations of a new kind of racial exclusivity. Even a new pledge to be recited in schools has been drawn into the racial debate after the last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, said that its lines "recognising the injustices of our past" and honouring those who "sacrificed for justice and freedom" will condemn white children to "perpetual moral inferiority".

Much has changed for the better. Workplaces are more integrated, with black people making up nearly a quarter of managers. So are some city schools, where the children of the white and black middle classes study alongside those of domestic workers and gardeners. What is hip for white children in the playground – particularly township slang – is determined by black students. The divisions that exist can be economic as much as racial.  

A small but visible black middle class has emerged, seen around Johannesburg in the BMWs and Mercedes that were once the trappings of white wealth alone. President Thabo Mbeki has said that white people might not vote for him, but that they do accept him as their legitimate president, something many would have found unthinkable 20 years ago.

But Jody Kollapen, chair of the statutory Human Rights Commission, says that many people continue to treat others "in terms of the kind of race classification that the apartheid system left with us".  

"Given the horror of the apartheid years, where we are now is a much better place. But we are not where we wanted to be. Perhaps in some ways we were unrealistic about how formidable the challenges were. Perhaps we believed this stupid thing about being a miracle nation, but we’re not a miracle country, we’re just an ordinary country," says Kollapen, who was defined as "Indian" under apartheid race laws.

Eric Miyeni, the author of O’Mandingo! The Only Black at a Dinner Party, a collection of his writing about race in South Africa, believes that one sign of progress is the reaction to the Free State students’ video. "I have a feeling that a lot of white people were incredibly outraged and want to do something about it, and that’s a very good way to heal as a nation. The good thing is we deal with stuff. You need a generational shift. When you have something like this happen you start to properly deal with it," he says. "There’s still racism, but now you have to say it in your living room, not in public, and when it comes out someone’s going to punish you. You can no longer bring it in to the public arena – that’s an important first step, and it has happened to a very large degree."  

But what is said in people’s living rooms remains part of the problem. The Free State students and the youth responsible for the Skielik shootings are not products of the apartheid era – at least not directly. The
y were small children when Mandela was released in 1990 and raised in a time when public expressions of racism grew increasingly unacceptable. So the widespread conclusion reached by many South Africans is that the students’ behaviour reflects still deep prejudices at home. "I think that’s the saddest part of it," says Kollapen. "For a long time there was an assumption that the generation raised now doesn’t carry with it the baggage of apartheid and therefore we can be reasonably confident that this generation will deal with the issues of race quite differently. These are not the children of apartheid, they’re the children of democracy, and if they conduct themselves in this fashion then there’s something seriously wrong in the way in which we’re seeking to develop a common set of values."

The students’ controversial video is overlaid with a commentary protesting at the forced integration of their university residence, which was exclusively white until last year. The Afrikaner groups that denounced the students nonetheless sympathised with their "legitimate concerns" about the future of the Afrikaans language, obstacles to white people entering university and integration.  

Large racial inequalities remain, with white people accounting for just 9% of the population but 45% of the country’s income. But that has not stopped widespread talk of a new anti-white apartheid and questions about whether white people have a future in South Africa. Not long after Mandela came to power it was difficult to find white people who admitted to supporting apartheid as fear gave way to a degree of shame over past wrongs. But it wasn’t long before many white people came to see themselves as victims amid rising crime, in particular the 20,000 murders a year, and then affirmative action laws that reserved 80% of most new jobs for black people and put an end to the virtual guarantee of university places for white students.

The very name of the Transvaal Agricultural Union gives away its take on the new South Africa. The Transvaal ceased to exist as a country after the Boer war and as a province after apartheid but the group representing mostly white farmers clings to the name as a statement. The views of its general manager, Bennie van Zyl, are not representative of most white people but they are sufficiently widespread to give his organisation some political clout. They are also the kind of views that underpin the actions of the Free State university students.  

"If a white person differs with a black person in South Africa, they shout racism. The situation at the University of the Free State, I used to do stuff like that myself. When I joined the hostel, every week I had to wash a senior student’s clothing and suck his socks and his underwear to show I washed them clean. As a white person I had to do it. I didn’t like it but that was the type of thing going around way back. So why is it suddenly now racism?" says Van Zyl.

"This government has a clampdown on whites. Because of affirmative action they are chasing away a lot of white people, white people with skills. They go out of the country. They don’t hire the best man for the job. They appoint people who don’t have the capacity. Now everything is so ideologically driven and politically driven, not economically driven. That is one of the big problems with Africa. Look at Zimbabwe. That’s the African reality."  

The sense of alienation and victimhood was given voice last year with an Afrikaans folk rock song about a defiant Boer war general, Koos de la Rey, with its lyrics about a "nation that will rise up again", that was seen by some as an attempt to rebrand Afrikaners from being perpetrators to being victims and a rallying cry for leadership that evaporated with the end of apartheid in 1994.

Mbeki has done little to reassure white people. When he came to power in 1999, South Africa’s president made clear that he saw things differently from Mandela and that race was a yardstick by which almost everything would be judged. "The defining parameter in our continuing struggle for national unity and reconciliation is the question of race," he says. "For many years to come, we will be able to measure the distance we have travelled towards the accomplishment of these objectives by the degree to which we have succeeded to close the great racial divides that continue to separate our communities."  

Kollapen says that Mbeki’s shift of emphasis, from calming white fears to delivering better living standards and opportunities for black people, was viewed by many white people as a betrayal of Mandela’s promise of reconciliation. "There was quite a distinct response from white people during the Mandela era and at the beginning of the Mbeki era. Some would cynically say that Mandela was the kind of president who made white people feel more secure and comfortable because of his strong focus on reconciliation. A Mbeki presidency was characterised by a strong need to deliver and to transform, which was why we saw programmes that pushed greater equity, and once you started talking greater equity, it meant making inroads into white people’s interests," he says.

Kollapen says Mbeki’s racial rhetoric did nothing to allay white fears. "I think while there was a need to put it up front there were times when it was used gratuitously and it wasn’t warranted. Sometimes you almost felt that the race card wasn’t necessary to play at that point in time, and Mbeki would do so," he says.  

It is difficult to say just how many South Africans, white and black, have emigrated because most do not formally declare they are doing so, but there are hundreds of thousands in Britain alone, many of them students or young people on Commonwealth work visas. Recently, however, there has been more talk about leaving among white people who fought for the new South Africa. For some it is simply the fear of crime periodically accentuated by some murder that stands out from the rest. This week, it was the shooting dead of an architect, and the wounding of his wife and 16-year-old son, in their Johannesburg home. Last month, it was the killing of 12-year-old Emily Williams in a robbery.

Others, such as Howard Varney, an anti-apartheid lawyer who was an investigator for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s truth and reconciliation commission, are increasingly disillusioned with what they see as the undermining of the institutions built up to protect post-apartheid democracy. The ANC is dismantling the elite anti-corruption unit prosecuting Zuma and other prominent party figures for corruption. Mbeki’s attempts to prevent the prosecution of his police chief, Jackie Selebi, for corruption and ties to a leading crime boss has reinforced a perception that the rule of law is hostage to political interests.
The ANC leadership also blocked an investigation into graft by political figures in the country’s largest ever weapons deal.  

"There’s a feeling of great unease," says Varney. "Many people who were part and parcel of the liberation struggle feel that what is going on is not what they worked toward. The constitutional principles, the rule of law, seem to be given short shrift depending on political influence. Certainly there’s a sense that if there’s a problem with criminal justice you just change the system. In the Mandela era, these things were sacrosanct and had to be built and respected. In the Mbeki era, there has been a slow undermining of these institutions and the placing of yes men in all key positions."

So will he leave? "I think so, yeah," he says. "Whereas Mandela’s approach was one of inclusiveness, that constructive approach has given way to Mbeki’s almost vindictive approach."  

Perhaps it was too much to expect that South Africa would change so fundamentally in a single generation? "I think the idea of the rainbow nation was a wonderful vision," says Kollapen. "We almost had a collective sense of where we wanted to go to and maybe that was more comforting than trying to find out where we’ve come from. Even today, whenever there’s a debate around race in society, everybody makes the same point: that this goes counter to what we want to achieve. But no one really asks the question: do these things happen in part because we haven’t quite dealt with where we’ve come from?"

"I think if we allow it to drift this way then we could go back to the hostility of the apartheid era, the levels of distrust, deep distrust that we had of each other."  

Kollapen says that South Africa needs the kind of powerful apology for apartheid that was recently offered by the Australian government to Aborigines in order to get white South Africans to stop looking on themselves as the victims.

Van Zyl says it won’t come from him.  

"Racism isn’t necessarily bad. It’s about cultural differences. We should accept each other as we are," he says. "They say apartheid was so bad but it created communications and infrastructure, railways, roads, the mines. It created jobs. I myself will never apologise for something that created the best opportunities in this country. People take apartheid out of context. It was different groups of people living in their culture, the way they like it" *











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