SA's 'recovering racists'

2004-04-22 16:00

Johannesburg - Ten years after apartheid ended, racism still overshadows South Africa, but glimmerings of a more equal "rainbow nation" are breaking through.

"We need to recognise the profound impact that racism has had on our society, materially, spiritually, psychologically or morally," President Thabo Mbeki said recently. "We need to recognise that many South Africans are still hurt and still feel the pain and the consequences."

A decade after the first non-racial elections in April 1994, many have come to realise that racism is not a simple black and white matter.

More than three centuries of white domination, including 46-years of apartheid, ended when the first black president and struggle icon, Nelson Mandela, and the African National Congress, came to power, preaching forgiveness and brotherhood.

"We shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world," Mandela said at his inauguration.

The peaceful transition was hailed as a miracle across the globe as both blacks and whites controlled extremist elements within their ranks who were preparing for an all-out fight to achieve their own, widely divergent, ends.

And so South Africans - about 86.5% of them black, Asian or coloured and 13.5% white - started a slow path of recovery.

"You must remember that where we grew up in the homelands (semi-autonomous African reserves) you didn't see white people. Maybe once every three months when you go into town, but then you would try to avoid them," said Percy Ramukosi, in his 20s, who works as a security guard in a white neighbourhood.

"For me, when I came to Johannesburg for the first time (in 1997), it was very hard to talk to whites. They are so strict and tight with money and I was scared of talking to them. But now it is better," he added.

Racist incidents not left behind

People of all races started mingling, but along with that came countless incidents of racism.

A white farmer was found guilty of murdering a black worker by dragging him with a rope behind his bakkie. A black school pupil was jailed for five years for stabbing a white learner with scissors.

A group of white policemen were sent to prison for setting their dogs on blacks in a "training exercise". A rightwing Afrikaner, De Wet Kritzinger, opened fire on a bus packed with black passengers, killing three and injuring four.

Many South Africans still vote along racial lines, political parties every now and then accuse Mbeki of "playing the race card", and the government's black economic empowerment drive has come under fire for being elitist, even from the president's own brother, businessman Moeletsi Mbeki.

Whites lament unfair affirmative action, blacks complain of never-ending discrimination and black South Africans are perceived throughout the continent as being xenophobic and arrogant toward fellow Africans.

There is hope

Racism has seeped into sport and quota systems in national teams have been criticised from all sides, especially in the white-dominated game of rugby that lies close to the heart of Afrikaners.

But there is hope. Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said: "Racism is something we learn, we're not born racists. Since it is learnt, it can be unlearnt."

The process of "unlearning" has begun.

South Africa hosted a major World Racism Conference in Durban in 2001, drawing in thousands of representatives across the world debating the complex subject.

Many minds have opened, mixed-race friendships have sprung up, people live and work together, and perhaps most significant - young children from all walks of life play together, oblivious to skin colour.

"It is tough, but it is coming. Our hope lies in the little ones," Ramukosi says.

Wessel Coetzee, an Afrikaner entrepreneur who lives in the neighbourhood where Ramukosi works, concludes: "I'm sure there are quite a few countries in the world grappling with racism issues, but in South Africa we have been conditioned to think along racial lines.

"Now we are a nation of recovering racists with some recovering faster than others."

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