Is apartheid still alive and kicking?

Author:Nevin, Tom
Position:South Africa

Apartheid in South Africa was officially declared dead 12 years ago but a growing number of critics say that far from being dead, apartheid is alive and well; it has simply gone underground. A series of horrifying cases involving white bosses seems to confirm that the old evil is lurking just under the surface. Statistics also show that while the ending of apartheid has brought an unprecedented economic boom to whites, blacks, with the exception of a few highly publicised individuals, have become poorer. Who are the real victors of the battle against apartheid? Is it whites or blacks? Tom Nevin reports.

The spectre of racism

A gruesome murder was a rude awakening for South Africans starting to believe that their country had turned the corner from black and white to the rainbow of racial harmony Nelson Mandela has longed for and so keenly sought.


The heavily racial undertone of the subsequent trial is disinterring racial tension generally hoped to have been rooted out in the first decade of the new South Africa. Now, it seems, it was simply lying in a shallow grave.

On trial are four whites and two black alleged henchmen accused of murdering three black laundry workers by beating them, tying them up, strangling them and shoving them into an industrial washing machine.

Pandemonium erupted at the Vereeniging (an industrial town some 60km east of Johannesburg) magistrate's court when the accused were released on bail of R5,000 ($800) each for the whites and R2,000 ($300) each for the black accused. The public gallery, packed with relatives and friends of the victims, shouted in outrage, hurling racial insults at the magistrate.

Outside the court, Dorothy Moeletsi, mother of one of the murdered workers, told reporters: "I hate white people. I don't want to see a white person in front of me. Today I will kiss my grandson, but I will never see my daughter again." Another victim's brother said the granting of bail was hard to bear. "I know that if they had (all) been black people who were the accused, they would not have been granted bail."

Some time later members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) gathered at the court with banners and sang old antiapartheid songs.

The irony and tragedy of this particular case is that a prior judge, also a white woman, had denied bail to the defendants because of the severity of the case and the solid evidence against them. The accused appealed on the grounds that a star witness had recanted his earlier testimony. The judge hearing the appeal felt she could not deny bail in light of the weakened case. In the climate of racial tension near boiling point, logic and due process has little effect. An awful crime had been committed, suspects had been arrested and the fact that they were white neatly tied it all up for the victims' families and friends, and the town's extensive black community.

The case, highly-publicised in the press and electronic media, scratches at the scab of South Africa's racially divided past and exposes the wound for all to see.

Ill-fitting masks

The fact that South Africa progressed so rapidly from the savagely enforced separation of the races to today's relative ethnic calm, in just a dozen years, speaks volumes for how unjust and abhorrent the system was for many people of all races, but not for all, because mutters persist.

To practise or encourage racism is against new laws, and the penalties are severe. For restaurateurs to display signs that proclaim "Right of admission reserved", an apartheid era euphemism for barring entry to people of colour, simply doesn't wash anymore; neither are signs on public benches, beaches and bars that say "Whites Only" permitted in this new South African day and age.

And yet the shadow of apartheid persists; for the country's right-leaning whites it is a culture that is difficult to put aside easily, and an ill-fitting mask.

It is also an attitude that feeds on what is proclaimed as "apartheid in reverse", where whites lose out on jobs and promotions because the government's energetically applied affirmative action and black economic empowerment programmes favour the quick economic advancement of black people.

Many black South Africans are disappointed at the slow rate of the economic advancement of the majority of the population and maintain that an economic apartheid prevails and is just as heinous as racism. It's difficult to argue against this in view of the widening chasm of the handful of very rich, mainly white, South Africans and the masses of, mostly black, very poor.

Visibly, a black middle class is emerging, but predominantly in the cities and far too slowly, the have-nots insist.

Notes a new publication South Africa 2014: The Story of Our Future, endorsed by President Thabo Mbeki: "Finding a way to deal with the deep divisions that still exist in our society remains a real challenge. Generally, we know very little about other cultures. We simply have to find ways to overcome this. If we fail, we will always be a multiracial but divided society. If we succeed, we will prosper as a non-racial, integrated society."

Conceding that cultural exchange is difficult, the publication at the same time urges an acceleration of the process...

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