Racism still blocking post-apartheid
progress in S. Africa
'Isolated' events reveal increasing social friction
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/227629
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It was shocking even for South Africa, the country that gave the world the word apartheid. Four young white men laughed as they duped five middle-aged black cleaners into eating what looked like dog food supposedly fouled by urine.
To many, the video that was splashed around the world suggests that 13 years after apartheid formally ended, racism is rampant and the nation isn't paying enough attention.
When Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, who is black, protested on a radio talk show that the incident was isolated, people called in to contradict him.
According to many discussions in the media and Associated Press interviews with a half-dozen analysts and human-rights workers, there's a creeping increase in racist incidents.
"It's getting worse because it's becoming more overt. This is not isolated; we have really appalling and degrading incidents," says Theresa Oakley-Smith, who for 15 years has run a human resource development company that offers diversity workshops.
With its strong economy and democratic structures, South Africa is the African nation with the most potential to bring about change on a beleaguered continent. Yet where racism is concerned, Oakley-Smith said, nothing has changed in the 10 years since she took part in an investigation at a school resisting integration.
There, white pupils, parents and teachers, including senior staff, disguised their faces with camouflage paint, went into a classroom of black students and "beat the children up horrifically," she recalled.
"Nothing was done. The senior guy involved in the attack wasn't fired — he may still be teaching there for all I know," says Oakley-Smith, who is white.
Jody Kollapen, head of the government Human Rights Commission, says, "We haven't come to terms with dealing with the past and with racism."
When Nelson Mandela walked out of the prison where he was held for 27 years, he forgave his captors and urged fellow blacks to be equally magnanimous in reconciling with whites who held power through terror tactics.
Reconciliation in the new "rainbow nation" meant forgiving whites, but the needed transformation of society was resisted by the whites who had benefited from apartheid, says Kollapen, who is Asian.
Whites got off too lightly, Oakley-Smith agrees.
South Africans tend to avoid discussing racism, callers to talk shows agree, and few victims, including the abused cleaners at the University of the Free State, ever complain.
Both Oakley-Smith and Kollapen called for a collective apology from whites similar to that made in February by the Australian government to Aborigines.
"Collectively, the very least white South Africans can do is to apologize, not just for this sick act but for the centuries of abuse that we have inflicted on black people in this country," opposition legislator Lance Greyling, who is white, said in a statement.
Under apartheid, black education was purposely substandard and certain skilled jobs, notably in big corporations such as the railroad, were reserved for whites. Now white South Africans complain about government affirmative-action programs that work against them.
Yet despite these programs and a booming economy, more blacks are out of work than under white rule.
Government statistics show that 10 percent of black households are in the top income bracket, compared with 65 percent of white households. Blacks are 85 percent of the 48 million population.
President Thabo Mbeki hoped business-friendly policies would create a trickle-down effect, but they didn't, and many blacks criticize Mbeki for leaving the reins of the economy in white hands.
In 2004, in its most recent available figures, the Department of Trade and Industry said black ownership of businesses had gone from zero to 10 percent and blacks occupied 15 percent of skilled positions.
Whites-only suburbs and restaurants have been desegregated, but few blacks can afford their prices. Most still live in black townships and work for whites as laborers, farmhands or domestic workers.
"I think it has a devastating effect — the negative impact on business, on productivity, that racism causes — if people can't talk to each other and don't respect each other," Oakley-Smith said.