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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 September 2006, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
South Africa's post-apartheid struggle
By Peter Biles
BBC News, South Africa

South Africa's voice of conscience, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has questioned why respect for the law, and even life, is missing in a country still struggling to move on from the days of apartheid.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu said levels of poverty were a powder keg

As if to reinforce his message, the country's annual crime statistics have shown a sharp rise in some areas of violent crime.

Forty years ago this September, I set foot here for the first time.

My parents had chosen to leave Britain and move to South Africa. Nelson Mandela had only just begun serving his long prison sentence then.

But I knew nothing of that as our ship passed Robben Island on its way into Cape Town on a fine spring morning.


It had taken two weeks to sail from Southampton, and the voyage had not been without drama.

While we were at sea, news reached the ship that the South African Prime Minister - Hendrik Verwoerd - one of the key architects of apartheid, had been assassinated in parliament.

Anti-apartheid demonstration 1990
Perhaps we didn't realise just how apartheid damaged us so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

He was stabbed to death by a deranged messenger. It was not - so it appeared - a political killing.

A memorial service was immediately held on board the ship, and as the South African passengers proudly and robustly sang their national anthem - Die Stem - I had my first taste of what it would be like growing up in white South Africa.

The late 1960s was a time when opposition to apartheid had been well and truly crushed by the state.

Mandela and his colleagues were languishing in jail, or in exile. Most white South Africans cared little about the morality of segregation. For that was the way it had always been - and the way it would stay for the foreseeable future.

Whites were concerned though, when international sports boycotts began to cast them into isolation. Sport had always mattered far more than politics.

This should have been a deeply impressionable time for a teenager. But I cannot over-emphasise the degree of insulation that there was then.

The apartheid state was at its zenith. Whites and blacks were not meant to mix.

The state wanted recent history forgotten, and so it was that as I entered university, I'd never heard of Nelson Mandela or the Sharpeville Shootings of 1960. Unbelievable now, but not unusual then.

'Powder keg' poverty

So let's fast forward to the present.

South Africa's democracy is now 12 years old, still young and somewhat fragile. Apartheid is history, and Nelson Mandela, has overseen one of the most remarkable periods of political transition anywhere in the world.

The former president and master of reconciliation is now 88 years old and enjoying a happy retirement.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela oversaw South Africa's political transition

But for another South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, all is not well in the new South Africa.

When I met him a few months ago, he told me of his concern about the demeaning levels of poverty that many people still face. This - he said - was a powder keg. And many white South Africans did not realise how lucky they were.

Now, Desmond Tutu has raised new issues.

He is worried about crime - the high murder rate, the rape of children, and the cold-blooded, gratuitous killing of motorists whose cars are hijacked.

"What's happened to us?" he asked. "Perhaps we didn't realise just how apartheid damaged us so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong."

As a result perhaps, it is easy to take for granted, the rather extraordinary surroundings in a big city like Johannesburg.

For those who can afford it, there are high walls and electrified fences around their properties. Alarm systems and armed response teams supposedly provide another layer of protection against the criminals.

People drive with their car doors locked and their windows closed. The other day, we had a major power-cut across northern Jo'burg.

As traffic lights failed, and queues began to build up, a local radio station gave a timely warning about the increased danger of "smash and grab" incidents at road intersections.

'Scintillating success'

As I went into my local bank this week, I was struck by the way in which South Africa still reverses the norms of society. Yes, there are two security doors on the way in, but you often have to queue to get out of the bank.

For all the obvious reasons, only one person at a time may leave the building.

I am relieved to say that crime is no longer the first topic of conversation at suburban dinner tables, as it was a decade ago.

But it is undoubtedly, a big problem, and the police are struggling.

Many white South Africans, in particular, continue to whinge about it. In parliament recently, the Safety and Security Minister controversially told some of the "whingers" - in this case, a group of opposition MPs - that they could leave the country if they did not like it.

Of course, black South Africans were the victims of crime, long before it reached the white suburbs. Add to that the domestic violence against women and children, that is still one of the most alarming facets of daily life here.

So Desmond Tutu's latest remarks about the state of the nation have certainly struck a chord, giving cause for concern about the future.

He makes it clear he thinks South Africa is a wonderful country, but says: "We are a scintillating success, waiting to happen".

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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