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Wednesday, 30 August, 2000, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
South Africa: Racism runs deep
Black and white South Africans
South African society remains deeply divided
As South Africa begins a conference on racism, South African journalist Justice Malala reflects on how far the country has come since the first non-racial elections in 1994.

A round-robin e-mail has been doing the rounds among black South African professionals lately. It is not the first of its kind, and the message is depressingly similar to those which have preceded it.

This letter is being distributed by engineers in Eskom - South Africa's electricity supply commission - and is one man's experience of working there.

Justice Malala
Justice Malala: "The problem of the colour-line is set to stay with us for a very long time indeed"
It is a rant, a warning to all who come after him or who enter other corporations to be careful of the "white corporate structure".

He recounts how, on arrival, he had to watch his every utterance because then he would be seen as a black with a "chip on his shoulder".

He details how, when he stood up for a labourer who was being treated unfairly, he was seen as a threat because blacks were seen as union agitators.

His excellent university degree was always being scrutinised. None of his white colleagues received the same treatment.

The worst thing, however, is that as he was promoted his white colleagues, and indeed even the bosses who promoted him, would not acknowledge that he was climbing the corporate ladder on the basis of his abilities.

'Second-class appointees'

Being black meant that he was always relegated to the ghetto of being an "affirmative action" candidate. Positive as affirmative action is, in almost all of corporate South Africa, it has become synonymous with "second-class appointee".


The defining parameter in our continuing struggle for national unity and reconciliation is the question of race.

President Mbeki
Stories like those recounted in the e-mail are a dime a dozen in South Africa. Numerous talented black professionals have left their jobs after being handed large offices, massive salaries and jobs which are an insult to their intelligence and abilities.

In newspapers, talented journalists have been fast-tracked to positions of authority and yet find themselves doing very little of substance once they have reached those positions.

Just as they were discriminated against on the basis of their colour in the past, these professionals feel used, insulted, and belittled by the way the uhuru of 1994 is turning out.

Among many young white males, the new dispensation and the implementation of affirmative action programmes poses a threat: they feel that they are not needed anymore, that their skin colour works against them in job interviews.

Defining issue

In February 1999, President Thabo Mbeki summed up the dilemma: "The defining parameter in our continuing struggle for national unity and reconciliation is the question of race.

Mandela walks free from jail in 1990
Mandela's release began a very slow process of reconciliation
"For many years to come, we will be able to measure the distance we have travelled towards the accomplishment of these objectives by the degree to which we have succeeded to close the great racial divides which continue to separate our communities."

And yet as South Africa's democracy has matured the race issue has intensified, deepened, and become more problematic. It can still be expressed in the crudest possible manner, as happened last week when a white farmer in the Free State province dragged a black man - with a wire tied to his ankle - for five kilometres behind his pick-up truck.

The black man died, yet another victim of all-too-frequent race murders in a liberated South Africa.

Slow progress

Since the release of former President Nelson Mandela in 1990, South Africa has been creaking slowly away from its racist past.

With the installation of the first democratic government in 1994, a new constitution that outlawed racism was adopted.

Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki: Has been accused of putting race before all else
But South Africa and its institutions were built on race, the country was constructed for two nations, one black and the other white.

Newspapers, for example, catered for a white readership only or had supplements for "native" news. Blacks could be photographed naked, while white people could not.

Apart from ensuring that the lives of the poor rural masses who are at the mercy of their bosses are improved, the greatest challenge facing South Africa is changing the nature of these institutions.

Accusations fly

This challenge, however, has largely been forgotten as political debate in the country has centred around trying to identify racists in our midst.

Women in Soweto
Most people still live in racially exclusive areas
Attacks on the government, for example, are usually dismissed as racist twaddle, while Mr Mbeki's criticism of opponents is dismissed by the same critics as the utterances of a man who puts race before all else.

In the search for a solution to one of the country's most terrible and central problems, sense and logic have been thrown out the window. On entering the debate, one is immediately labelled either racist or a self-hating black or white. Inevitably, debate hits a brick wall.

Whether this week's conference on racism - already heavily criticised by opposition parties as structurally biased to give credence to the government's position on race, its effects and how to solve the problem - can come up with a solution is doubtful.

At the end of the conference, resolutions and a declaration will be adopted, and possibly a review will be undertaken in a year. But it is unlikely that any real concrete proposals will come out of it.

Writing in the forethought of his The Souls of Black Folk in 1902, the American civil rights fighter WEB du Bois said: "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour-line."

In South Africa, as we enter a new century, the problem of the colour-line is set to stay with us for a very long time indeed.

Justice Malala is the London correspondent for the South African Sunday Times

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See also:

24 Aug 00 | Africa
Racism 'pervasive' in SA media
26 Jan 00 | Africa
South Africa bans discrimination
28 Aug 00 | Africa
South Africa's new racism
29 Aug 00 | Africa
Apartheid 'still alive' in SA
29 Aug 00 | Africa
SA worker dragged to death
30 Aug 00 | Africa
Mbeki: Whites must do more
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