Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-SOUTH AFRICA: Racism Spoils it for New Democracy

Gumisai Mutume

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 3 1998 (IPS) - As South Africa heads for another general election next year, politics and economic affairs appear to have stabilised somewhat, but race relations continue to deteriorate.

According to a survey of political analysts carried out by the South Africa Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), the colour of a person’s skin is now more of an issue than ever before during the transition to democracy.

“Some things have gone much better, including macro-economic policy and constraints on spending,” notes journalist and former SAIRR public affairs manager Paul Pereira. “But there has been a deterioration in race relations.

“These reached their peak in the early 1990s, but it’s again fashionable to use race as a yardstick, both in formulation of policy and in judging people during debates.”

South Africans lived under a system of institutionalised racism from 1948 to the start of the 1990s. Majority rule in 1994 ushered in a new era and the country came to be known as ‘the Rainbow Nation’ but now the realities of transformation are beginning to bite. Whites are concerned about the impact of affirmative action while Blacks, who make up 95 percent of the poor, continue to see Whites as enjoying the fruits of apartheid.

“If one is black it is legitimate to criticise aspects of transformation, but this is something Whites may not do,” political commentator Dr Themba Sono says in ‘Frontiers of Freedom’, a publication produced by SAIRR. “Race relations are worse than expected and deteriorating … the validity or morality of an opinion now depends on the race of the speaker.”

And as testimony to the public outpourings of racial conflict in the new South Africa there is the case of Vryburg High School — one of many educational institutions that have exploded because of race.

In the small town of Vryburg in the North West province, white ratepayers want the black mayor Hoffmann Galeng out. Blacks have on the other hand threatened retaliatory action such as boycotting white businesses.

All this stems from an incident in which a white pupil complained that she had been assualted by four black students at the predominantly white school, which then erupted into lock-outs, arrests and physical clashes that even saw white and black policemen at each others’ throats.

“Schools present the ideal turf for racial conflict,” says a headmaster from a predominantly white school in Johannesburg. “Pitting different cultures and races results in one group feeling superior to another, children play out the sentiments of their parents. Students’ tempers flare easily and the facade of racial harmony is easily exposed.”

The Human Rights Commission says it investigated about 30 cases of racism at predominantly whites schools last year. At some of the schools, students had to be hospitalised following assaults. At others, black students were locked out as the school authorities refused to enrol them.

Another example of race relations gone sour is rugby, a predominantly Afrikaner sport that is refusing to change with the times and accomodate Blacks. The president of the South African Rugby Football Union, Louis Luyt, even dragged President Nelson Mandela to court to answer questions on why he appointed a body, the Browde Commission, to investigate the running of the sport.

It is the first time a South African president has been forced to defend an executive decision in court — incidentally the president is black while Luyt is a middle-aged white man. Mandela himself is of the opinion that SARFU is corrupt and if these allegations, including those of racism, are proved by the commission, heads are likely to roll.

An opinion regularly voiced among Afrikaners is: “we gave you the country, why don’t you let us keep our rugby.”

As a show of conciliation, Mandela had even allowed SARFU to keep the old apartheid emblem — the springbok. Yet only a couple of blacks have played for the national team and, at rugby matches, the old South African flag is still raised while the apartheid-era anthem ‘Die Stem’ is sung by allegedly drunk hooligans.

A piece of legislation known as the Employment Equity Bill is also raising racial temperatures: it has been dismissed by white opposition parties as reverse racism.

When it becomes law in June, it will compel private companies to employ at least 75 percent blacks, 50 percent women and 5 percent disabled people. The ruling African National Congress says it wants to see organisations reflecting national and regional demographics: Blacks make up 76 percent of South Africa’s 37.9 million people, and Whites are 12 percent.

Employers whose efforts are not deemed sufficient will face fines of up to 100,000 U.S. dollars in the first year and 120,000 in the second year up to 185,000 in the fifth year. Government tenders will also be decided by whether a company has an employment equity plan.

The opposition National Party, which ruled the country throughout the apartheid era, says it sees this as a direct interference in the affairs of private companies and a move that will certainly accelerate capital flight as, “merit and educational qualification take a backseat to racial composition.”

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