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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 18:14 GMT 19:14 UK
'Rainbow nation' alienating whites
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

Eleven years ago, the run-up to the 1994 election in South Africa was violent and frightening, and people talked darkly about the civil war that was brewing.

Nelson Mandela presents the Rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar, South Africa, 1995
Nelson Mandela envisaged an inclusive "rainbow nation"
Then the ANC won the election with a big majority, and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president.

On the day that happened, half a million people celebrated in the streets of the capital, then known as Pretoria.

When we checked with the police that evening, they told us that not a single crime had been committed in the city all day long.

It was, I think, the best story I have covered in my 40 years as a journalist.

And now? The outside world believes that South Africa was all sorted out in 1994, and the story had a happy ending.

But of course life is not like that.

On 30 May Schabir Shaik, the financial adviser to the Vice-President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was convicted of using a loan of nearly $550,000 (300,000) to influence an arms contract.

The South African press demanded Mr Zuma's resignation, but on Friday he announced: "My conscience is clear, because I have not committed any crime."

It is assumed he will keep his job as vice-president.

Mr Zuma is a Zulu, and has strong support among the strong Zulu contingent within the ruling ANC and the unions.

Political stability

President Thabo Mbeki needs to keep the ANC together. Alienating the Zulu population by sacking Mr Zuma will not help to do that.

It is the kind of trade-off politicians have to make: in this case, ensuring the political stability of the country instead of facing up to the threat of high-level corruption.

President Mbeki has had to make a great many trade-offs like this since he took over from Nelson Mandela.

Because South Africa lacked the resources to cope with the terrible onslaught of Aids, he played down the threat and questioned its link with HIV.

Despite the catastrophe President Robert Mugabe has brought down on the people of Zimbabwe by wrecking its agriculture and undermining the rule of law, Mr Mbeki has consistently failed to condemn him.

He knows there are politicians within the ANC who would like to do the same in South Africa, and he believes the best way to counter them is to remain quiet.

He is constantly attacked for all this in the South African press, which is still predominantly white.

Because he is thin-skinned, his response has often been to suggest that his critics are unreconstructed racists: including some whose anti-apartheid credentials are impeccable.

President Thabo Mbeki (left) and his deputy Jacob Zuma
Sacking Mr Zuma would risk alienating the Zulu population

Back in 1994, the whites of South Africa, and particularly the Afrikaners, thought they had a deal: if they gave up political power, their position would be guaranteed.

Nelson Mandela went out of his way to court the Afrikaners. He spoke excellent Afrikaans, and had several close Afrikaner friends and advisers.

Thabo Mbeki comes from a different generation, and a different background. Most of his life was spent in exile, much of it in Britain.

In the ANC, he is often seen as a remote outsider. He knows it does him no harm whatever to criticize the unreconstructed attitudes of many whites.

Little things as well as more important ones grate on the white community.

White South Africans hoped the capital would keep its old name, Pretoria.

But under the ANC it has been renamed Tshwane. Only a district of the capital retains the name "Pretoria".

Black empowerment, which is essential if the country is to prosper, means that whites are losing their jobs throughout the economy.

Crime seems as bad as ever, yet the government sometimes gives the impression it is just a white myth.

Whites leaving

More and more whites are leaving South Africa; some temporarily, some for good.

The South African High Commission in London thinks there may be 1.4m South Africans in Britain.

Although it is essential to bring black people into the economy in large numbers, South Africa is in danger of losing the talents of its whites, who often feel it is no longer their country.

Most young white South Africans seem fully committed to living in a society where the colour of people's skin is of no importance whatever
Perhaps it is inevitable. Until less than 20 years ago, black people were still legally inferior in South Africa.

The apartheid system was just as cruel and stupid as its critics maintained, and simply handing over political power was not enough to wash away the after-effects.

Plenty of whites understand this. Recently a leading Afrikaans academic, Professor Willie Esterhuyse of Stellenbosch University declared: "The majority of Afrikaners and their opinion makers are still suffering from a historical 'black-out' as far as white racism and destructive perceptions of black people are concerned. The second and third generation after 1990 will hopefully be different."

He is right. Most young white South Africans, and particularly Afrikaans-speaking ones, seem fully committed to living in a society where the colour of people's skin is of no importance whatever.

They are proud of their country, and want to make it better. Most of those who are now living in Britain or other countries are determined to go home as soon as they can.

But this will not happen if the ANC reverses all its principles and regards South Africa as essentially a black people's country, where everyone else lives on sufferance.


Your comments:

The whites have not faced up to their past deeds and are therefore not rehabilitated
Gabriel Hlekwayo, Cape Town, South Africa
There is a perception that South Africa has healed and all is forgiven amongst the whites of this country. I feel that the whites have not faced up to their past deeds and are therefore not rehabilitated. Too often as a black person I am looked down at or when whites are alone I hear those hateful terms used. I am willing to forgive, but not those who are not worthy.
Gabriel Hlekwayo, Cape Town, South Africa

Affirmative Action was put in place to "fix" colleges and the work place into being equal on a racial level. On the other side of that many people would cry "reverse racism". Even if racial equality is the right moral way of thinking for most progressives, it still involves the taking of power from some group to give to another.
Jeremy Egelman, NY USA

South Africa must not allow the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, where the former ruling class of ethnic Tutsis was slaughtered by the once oppressed Hutus, to be repeated in its own land. This is a time for forgiveness, open hearts, and open minds. It is also the time to stop finger pointing and try to correct the many problems South Africa faces.
Daniel C. Greenwood, Philadelphia, USA

South African has changed in countless positive ways since the first real democratic elections, but sadly race still seems to affect the way people judge the opinions of others. For example, I've no doubt that some would detect a bias in Mr Simpson's succinct interpretation of the current climate for Whites in South Africa because he is White, and possibly feels a certain kinship with them.
Richard Barnes-Webb, Dusseldorf, Germany

I think JS should come to this part of the world. His comments on Afrikaans being non-racialist is nonsense. They are the most bigoted people of all. Come and live here as I have done for the past 30 years, you need to experience the place, not just listen to what they have to say.
Sue Morley, Napier in the Overberg, South Africa

White South Africans have seen what happened in Zimbabwe. South Africa is headed down the same path. Who wants to live in a violent and unstable country?
Frank, USA

I too am an ex-pat South African. Ironically, I left in the 80's because I found apartheid insufferable. Now, while I would like to return, I am constantly told by people still there, that there is no future for me because I am White as it supposedly next to impossible to get a job. But I do still hope to return though. I love the country.
Theo Stauffer, Zurich, Switzerland

The SA government has the unenviable task of trying to balance "white fears" with "black expectation"
Luqman Ahmad, Toronto, Canada
The SA government has the unenviable task of trying to balance "white fears" with "black expectation". While I agree with much of what Mr. Simpson writes, I think it is only part the story. I'm sure one can find many more black South Africans (relative to the alienated white ones) who increasingly feel economically alienated in South Africa.
Luqman Ahmad, Toronto, Canada

Thank you John for outlining some of the concerns white South African have and often are unable to articulate, certainly not in the eloquent and balanced manner that you do. As a young white South African ex-pat with no ill feeling towards any of my fellow South Africans, it is very frustrating when my concerns and opinions are brushed off as unimportant or as some form of unreconstructed racism. I would like to return to my country and help construct a just society, but there must be a glimmer of hope that those in the ANC who wish to see the "white problem" solved, never reach the seat of power.
Dave Howson, Montreal, Quebec

Indeed, John Simpson has exactly caught the spirit. Pity now it is too late and there is "reverse apartheid" against Whites and it won't be long before South Africa resembles its neighbour, Zimbabwe.
Ken, Lagos, Nigeria

I am a tad curious about the motive behind this article. What is happening now in SA is as a result of years of oppression, degradation and sheer selfishness. I have no sympathy for the Whites that have benefited from the previous system and when things changed they took the soft option i.e. running away abroad and doing menial jobs like security guards, bartenders etc. They should return to SA and take a constructive part and leading role in rebuilding the country.
Ade Oguntunde, Lagos, Nigeria

I am a white South African, who came to the UK because there isn't a future for me in South Africa. I love my home country and the people, but unfortunately the country has no place for me. People are not judged by their skills or education, but by the colour of their skins. It is nearly impossible for me to make a living there, in the country that I love. I wish to return to someday, when all the races can learn to live together, and we are all truly equal.
Elmarie Saayman, Reading, UK (originally Pretoria)

If anyone gets offended that Blacks have started stamping their authority, South Africa is not the place for them
Steven Mudi, Harare, Zimbabwe
For so many years the South African Whites enjoyed the cake whilst the Black majority were sidelined. Now that the Blacks have started addressing the injustices suffered by the general populace by actively participating in their economy, you are now raising your eyebrows to the effect that the Whites are being marginalized. Don't you want to see Blacks prosper in their own country as well? If anyone gets offended that Blacks have started stamping their authority, South Africa is not the place for them
Steven Mudi, Harare, Zimbabwe

It's funny how it takes an outsider to articulate what us beleaguered whites are experiencing. One thing though, it seems the Pretoria issue is not yet final. Why can't they leave the history of the country alone? Next they will be pulling down the fabulous statues of Queen Victoria in Durban and Port Elizabeth.
Sarah Hudleston, Johannesburg




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