Race Relations in Modern Day South Africa
South Africa is a nation clinging hopefully to the faded edges of a multi-cultural rainbow as socio-economic inequalities continue to put pressure on reconciliation efforts in this troubled land
By Morena Le Loi
The “Rainbow Nation,” as respected antiapartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu once described us, is struggling to hold onto the precious facade of non-racialism. Persistent racial inequality, rampant crime and die-hard attitudes still drive a thick wedge between the various racial groups.
But there is hope.
Racial interaction in the workplace, on the country’s much celebrated sports fields and in leafy suburbs show there are a growing number of citizens slowly breaking down barriers once set in stone - and in Apartheid legislation. A growing middle class is learning, finally, to live and let live.
Mixing It Up
It is no longer strange to see mixed-race couples cavorting on scenic, coastal promenades in Cape Town - or multi-cultural hotspots in Johannesburg. Go to any major urban area in South Africa today and you will see blacks, whites, Coloureds (people of mixed race descendant of colonial-era relations between indigenous people and white settlers) and Indians all mixing it up on dance-floors, in cocktail lounges and in restaurants.
And high-powered couples with exotic sounding double-barrelled surnames like Smythe-Ngoako and Rampedi-Williams no longer seem strange. After all, most South Africans - from all racial groups – have happily embraced non-racism as a founding principle of our new social compact. But, argue the sceptics, this is a deceptive – and inaccurate - reflection of the current South African reality. Beneath the surface lurks a quagmire of unresolved racial tension which threatens to spill over at the slightest provocation, they warn.
A black colleague, who is married to a white South African, recently told me of his constant surprise when black women pass them by and give him disapproving looks - as if to suggest that he has sold out the tribe by taking a white wife. Anecdotal evidence suggests similar tensions exist within the white community, but confrontations in this regard are rare.
My Khosa friend, Gerald (28), laughs when we discuss this issue - he is more troubled by same-sex relationships than inter-race partnerships. This is a view shared by many South Africans - particularly in the black community, where gay people are still subject to daily harassment and contempt.
The Centre Holds
There have been a number of racially charged incidents over the past couple of years that have given rise to the spectacle of violent political rhetoric and threats of an all-out race war in South Africa.
When the ANC came to power in 1994, the right wing warned of a bloodbath. It did not happen, thanks primarily to the reconciliatory role played by former President Nelson Mandela. In fact, much of the blood spilled in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic election was related to the struggle between the (predominantly Xhosa) ANC and the (predominantly Zulu) Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) - with clandestine support from within the apartheid state - for control of the KwaZulu-Natal province, an IFP stronghold.
When the head of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and veteran anti-apartheid leader, Joe Slovo, was assassinated by right-wing extremists shortly before the watershed elections in 1994, black nationalists warned of a bloodbath. Again, the country held its collective breath while Madiba (as Mandela is affectionately known at home) called for calm and led by example, engaging publicly with groups from all walks of life.
And when, more than a decade later, rightwing politician Eugene Terreblanche was murdered on his farm – allegedly by two young black men over a dispute about wages – doomsayers again warned of an inevitable race war. History, so far, has proven the sceptics wrong.
And so it has been that every time extremists at either end of the racial scale threatened war, peace-making leaders have stepped in and the silent majority has calmly gone about their business. The rabble-rousing rhetoric of the few was simply ignored.
But tensions do exist.
The Malema Factor
Few people have done as much as ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leader Julius Malema to aggravate racial division in South Africa over the past couple of years. Since his controversial election to this influential position – some still dispute the legality of his election during a conference marred by violence – Malema has gone out of his way to stir racial and class tensions. He has successfully tapped into nascent socio-economic dissatisfaction to build a support base of the disillusioned, many of them young black people born after 1994 and who have no first-hand experience of Apartheid. He has also provided a political home for African nationalists who see no role for whites in post-apartheid South Africa – people who would happily see whites driven into the sea.
Much as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has done in his country, Malema attracts a populist following by promising rewards in the form of wealth redistribution.
At the start of this millennium, Mugabe began to systematically confiscate productive agricultural land from the country’s whites – many of whom bought the land legally after the country’s independence. He gave much of this land to his political cronies and key officials in the security sector in what must count as one of the most cynical exercises of cronyism in Sub-Saharan Africa in many decades. Many of these once prosperous tobacco and tea estates now lie fallow and the country’s agricultural exports - the biggest contributor to GDP - have plummeted.
In order to ensure continued support from key political players in his administration, Mugabe was willing to bankrupt his country. And as he was reducing his country’s economy to a pile of rubble, he could count on vocal support from the ANCYL under Malema and his predecessor, Fikile Mbalula.
In South Africa, black nationalists - once a minority in the ANC - have found a new voice in Malema’s youth league.
The firebrand leader is blatantly exploiting existing inequalities to push for the nationalisation of mines - a key sector in the South African economy. He also wants land to be confiscated from whites and given to landless blacks.
Understandably, this has earned him a lot of support among the country’s poor, who have waited in vain for the lavish promises made by ANC leaders in 1994 to be realised.
The socialist rhetoric has prompted the hard right to say we told you so: that these are exactly the kind of failed communist policies the ANC would introduce once it came into power. The so-called rooi gevaar (red danger) used to scare white South Africans into supporting an anti-Communist National Party (NP), is now all too real for some.
It’s the Economy Stupid
Feeding into this populism is the very real fact that many South Africans have yet to benefit from black rule. While much progress had been made to extend basic services such as electricity and water to previously disadvantaged communities, homelessness and joblessness continues to grow. The backlog for low-cost housing is now greater than it was in 1994. And the government simply cannot keep pace.
Unofficial unemployment stands at more than 40 percent – government figures, which exclude those who have given up looking for work – stands at about 23 percent. Household incomes in Africa’s richest economy have declined while the dangerous gap between the rich and the poor grows exponentially.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that many see the appeal of a Mugabe-style land-grab or a Malemastyle mine-grab. But such calls have only served to entrench suspicions across the racial divide. Any criticism of transformative policies is viewed in some circles as the moaning of privileged whites fighting to maintain their economic advantage. Similarly, warnings that such policies will lead to the country’s economic demise, are viewed with suspicion.
On the other hand, when the (predominantly black) poor give voice to their dissatisfaction, many whites revert to racial typecasting and complain about their taxes being used to fund vote-buying policies which pay for social welfare benefits and free housing. Until the majority of South Africans can feel the changes of 1994 in their pockets these tensions will remain.
What Most People Think
Recent surveys suggest South Africans are finally beginning to think of themselves as South Africans first, and everything else second.
About half (54 percent) of respondents approached by the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR) in 2010 said they identify themselves first and foremost as South Africans – up from 46 percent in 2008.
Only 15 percent identified themselves by a racial, language, cultural, ethnic or religious affiliation. More than 60 percent agreed strongly with the following statement: “I believe that all people are my brothers and sisters and equals, regardless of their race, religion and political beliefs.”
The SAIRR report states that: “South Africans are becoming more comfortable with people of other races. It appears that levels of comfort are based on class and not on race as people of the same socio-economic level were more likely to feel comfortable with each other, regardless of race”.
People from homogenous societies – or in places where race has long since been replaced by other social factors as determinants of group identity – it may seem strange that views on race are still being measured – or that they matter at all.
But in a country where everything may depend on the success or failure of racial integration, these developments are welcomed. In everyday life, most South Africans just want to get on with things. And while their closely held prejudices are quickly brought to the surface by the occasional racial incident, most South Africans seem resolutely determined to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Nothing breaks down social divisions of whatever nature quite like the experience of working together. It is no surprise then that it’s in the workplace where real reconciliation is taking place. Some of my white colleagues are honest enough to admit that many of them would not have made an effort to mix socially – and therefore begin to understand “the other” – without the inevitable integration that comes from sharing an office or factory floor.
Nothing binds people quite like the idea that they are in the same boat together – and will sink or swim together. Sadly, this is less often the case in the country’s boardrooms, where white males still dominate.
Racial tensions also stem from a number of government policies aimed at righting the wrongs of the past. Affirmative Action (AA) and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) are among the most hotly contested policies of the ANC government. Supporters of AA argue that such policies are absolutely necessary to correct the imbalances of the past. Critics – many of whom support the principle, but disagree with the way it is being implemented – argue that AA in South Africa is simply forcing skilled whites aside to make room for inexperienced blacks. Analysts tend to agree that AA has been too hastily – and often incorrectly – implemented, causing a brain drain. A gradual process of education and mentoring was abandoned in favour of an understandable pursuit of legitimacy, particularly in the civil service. ANC leaders were sensitive to the fact that the “face” of government – the public service – need to be black. But an overly zealous implementation of AA often set unqualified and inexperienced blacks up for failure.
Over the past four or five years, the ANC government has begun to acknowledge, quietly, that its AA policies may have been too hastily implemented. The massive skills shortage now holding the economy back has become an urgent matter for the ANC.
So it is that lists are being drawn up of municipal workers who were forced out of their jobs or simply encouraged to take early retirement. Thousands of technicians, engineers, accountants, artisans and other crucial skills now lacking at local, provincial and national government level – many of them white - are slowly being re-hired to fill the skills gap. But much more needs to be done.
BEE policies have drawn criticism for their failure to truly empower the majority, as initially promised. Instead, a relatively small group of well-connected individuals return to the trough time and again to scoop up lucrative government contracts – often donating some of the profits back to the ANC.
These “tendertreupeneurs”, as critics within the ANC have branded them, have done precious little to advance the cause of economic empowerment – unless empowerment means having enough financial clout to manipulate the outcome of internal party political leadership squabbles. A couple of black billionaires do not an economically empowered community make.
There is a new divide developing in South Africa – that between relatively well educated, generally employed urban dwellers and a lesser educated and often unemployed rural population.
Cross-cultural experiences are, understandably, far more common in urban areas, while latent racism and a masterservant mentality still holds sway in many rural sections of the country.
In many dorpies (towns) of the rural hinterland, mixed couples and inter-racial social interactions are rare. And it is in one such town that a group of less than 2,000 Afrikaners (Boers) have set up what they hope will one day become another Boer Republic – as they did when they established the Transvaal and the Orange Free State under British domination in the 19th Century.
Orania, as it is called, is a dusty outpost of Afrikaner nationalism in the arid Northern Cape province.
With its own currency – though not recognised anywhere else – and various small-scale, self-help industries flourishing, these new Trekkers hope to ensure the whites-only heritage of their forefathers. They are relying on a much-maligned clause of the negotiated settlement of the early 90s – that independent statehood for the
Afrikaners will be considered. But the vast majority of Afrikaners in South Africa today are quite happy to sing the new anthem and wave the new flag of a united country. For most, it is about bread and butter issues, not fanciful dreams of an independent Volkstaat or nation state.
Dr Karel Boshof, a retired academic and Afrikaner intellectual, presides over this small community with the fervour of a latter day pioneer. But this community is not to be confused with the survivalist extremists found from time to time in the United States. This community is flourishing in its own way. Modern farming methods – many learned from other dry climate nations, such as Israel – and a strong work ethic has ensured reasonable success. But an independent existence – separated from the South African economy – is simply not sustainable. Instead, this generation of hard-line Afrikaners are likely to be left to live out their days in self-imposed isolation as younger generations flock to the cities.
Nelson Mandela himself seemed to have made peace with this fact. He never called on this community to disband. In fact, he once visited Orania and took tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the late widow of Apartheid architect and former Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. This reconciliatory move was classic Madiba.
The Zuma Factor
President Jacob Zuma came to power in 2009 under a dark cloud of suspicion. A protracted corruption trial against him faltered at the final hurdle just days before the national elections thanks to the political meddling of former President Thabo Mbeki and those loyal to him. But many South Africans – particularly whites – have not forgotten that our president faced more than one hundred charges of corruption linked to the country’s controversial multibillion Rand arms deal. They have also not forgotten Zuma’s appeal at the time for him to have his day in court to clear his name.
This never happened. And those in the know are convinced that a “political solution” was found to Zuma’s legal woes.
Since his inauguration, Zuma has done much to try and improve his relationship with Afrikaners. He has attended a braai (barbeque) with contemporary Afrikaner notables like singer Steve Hofmeyer and others. But suspicions and mistrust remain.
The fact that he has done nothing to address farm murders has also not endeared him to Afrikaners living at coal face of an extraordinarily viscious spate of murders on white farms across the country. Over the past decade, more than 3,000 white farmers and family members have been murdered – often with extreme brutality. Agricultural and Afrikaner political organisations are convinced this is part of a concerted effort by criminal elements to drive whites off their farms – and that the ANC government is turning a blind eye. The government has been understandably hesitant to recognise any links between these crimes and race.
But until steps are taken to pay special attention to the security of farmers and their workers, trust will be a commodity any ANC leader will find hard to come by.
The Calm before the Calm
Many a learned commentator has warned over the past three or more decades that South Africa will eventually – and inevitably – slip off the rational edge. Predictions of an all-out race war have followed this fledgling democracy along every tentative step of its journey towards peace and prosperity. And while many danger signals flash brightly – particularly when extremes are leant an ear or two – there appears to be clear evidence that the majority of South Africans want this rainbow experiment to work. Young South Africans from all walks of life are the first to dismiss the concerns of the “old folk” – those overly rational sentimentalists who see problems where they see only opportunity.
It is with this generation – and those to follow – that the country’s hopes lie. But in the meantime, those of us who lived apartheid have a responsibility to temper our language, to call for patience and to do everything we can to ensure that future generations do not come from the impoverished hovels that still house so many today.