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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
The brutal imprint of apartheid
By Brian Barron

The latest edition of a popular guidebook to South Africa advises travellers that there is no need to stop in Johannesburg, a city plagued by crime and violence. It is best to go straight to safer destinations.

This was always a hard-hearted metropolis, built on fortunes made from gold and diamonds, and it has not grown any kinder. Car-hijackings and robbery and rape at gunpoint, along with cold-blooded murder, are commonplace.

The brutal imprint of apartheid ... is still visible in the way communities are divided up

The downtown is unsafe to the casual visitor even during the day; at night Johannesburg has a spooky emptiness.

All the hotels I used to stay in have closed down.

The city has the same seedy, run-down ambience of many American inner cities in the early 80s. Let us hope that Johannesburg, eventually, will enjoy the same renaissance. It will need to because this remains the commercial capital of southern Africa and the greatest disincentive for visiting executives is personal insecurity.

No-go areas

Despite this unflattering picture many whites still live a cloistered existence. In the northern suburb of Rosebank it is as if there has been a competition to build the highest security wall. Those around the plushest properties are topped with electrified fences.

South Africa is struggling to meet the expectations of millions who have nothing

Every few yards there is a big sign threatening armed response against intruders. Uniformed guards stand on the pavements listening to walkie-talkies. Large dogs snarl as you walk past over-size gates through which there are glimpses of swimming pools, tennis courts and weedless lawns.

Families who would be lucky to live in a semi in Slough, are tended by several servants. Colonial Africa is a hardy species, though the whinging from the privileged has grown louder. The question of race remains a dominant theme here and the reality is the future is black.

Placard reading,
Unemployment is rising
The brutal imprint of apartheid, with its absurd obsessions with racial separation, is still visible in the way communities are divided up, not just here but across South Africa. But absent now - and what a relief it is - is the palpable feeling that an entire people were victims, stripped of their dignity.

Today, restored to the modern world, South Africa is struggling to meet the expectations of millions who have nothing. The biggest problems are an Aids epidemic, which has infected more than three million people, and unemployment.

The ANC government has shed the socialist baggage from the long years of resistance to apartheid and is trying to implement market-based reforms. In the process of creating a modern economy, more than half a million jobs have been lost - and more redundancies are inevitable.

What really surprises me about South Africa today is the lack of bitterness

In the small town of Hankie, in the Eastern Cape, the mayor told me 65% of adults are unemployed. It is a recurring story and is probably the root cause of the crime wave

"Could it happen here?" is the most oft-used headline in South African newspapers - a reference to the land invasions in Zimbabwe. But the conclusion seems positive.

Strikers hold placards, August 1999
There have been a series of protests over the economy
South Africa has a constitution and the rule of law. President Mbeki has taken a lot of stick from white South Africans for not denouncing Robert Mugabe.

But that seems a knee-jerk reaction. The President, certainly no bosom pal of Zimbabwe's leader, has avoided statements that ultimately would diminish South Africa's influence in Harare. President Mbeki has shown a sensible caution while still spelling out in parliament in Capetown that land seizures would not be tolerated here.

For the 40,000 white farmers that was solid reassurance. Inevitably some are die-hard racists to this day, but many I met in the Eastern Cape recognise that the re-distribution of lands must be accelerated. The dilemma for the government is how to make this a fairer society before frustration gets out of hand.

Healing process

Africanisation is underway but the downside is that in the civil service, for instance, promotion for whites, even young and talented, seems at a dead-end.

What really surprises me about South Africa today is the lack of bitterness. The trial is underway of a white doctor who headed the apartheid regime's chemical warfare research programme. Witnesses have included a former Rhodesian commando, referred to as Mr K, who was recruited to run the South African military's top-secret hit squad.

Calmly, with gruesome detail, Mr K described routine missions, such as taking plane-loads of sedated prisoners, enemies of the racist state, for a final flight over the aptly named Skeleton Coast. Usually he gave the victims a lethal injection before dropping them into the sea from the back of the plane. But when the syringe was empty he used a hammer to bludgeon them.

He told the court it did not seem proper to throw them out until they were dead. Oh yes - and when necessary Mr K executed members of his own hit squad if they became security risks themselves.

Some of the white leaders who pulled the strings of these clandestine operations are retired comfortably on their government pensions, apparently immune from prosecution by the terms of a hand-over deal with Nelson Mandela - the so-called Sunset Clauses.

The process of exposing the crimes of the rogue state they ran continues. South Africa today is very much work in progress.

But after the nightmare racism of the last century, and the skewed society that is its legacy, the wonder is that there is so much tolerance and patience.

Brian Barron reported for the BBC from South Africa during the apartheid era.

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See also:

16 May 00 | Media reports
Regional concern over land crisis
06 May 00 | Africa
South Africa tackles Aids
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