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Race and racism in South Africa

Andrew Harding | 08:00 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

eugene226afp.jpgI moved to South Africa just over a year ago, and the very first white man I met - the gregarious owner of a serviced-apartment complex in Johannesburg - casually offered me his thoughts about the "baboons" who would eventually wreck this "magical country."

Since then I've encountered plenty of enlightened, tolerant, optimistic people. But I have never lived in a place more openly, exhaustingly, poisonously preoccupied with race and racism. It's thoroughly understandable, of course.

Apartheid is still fairly fresh in its grave and it will surely take another generation or more to reverse its viciously warped economic legacies. But as Justice Malala argues in his weekly column, there is a danger that South Africa's vital debate about apartheid's aftermath is being hijacked by extremists on both sides, diverting attention away from the core challenges facing the country.

Last week was a particularly bruising one. Eugene Terreblanche was a vile and increasingly irrelevant figure in South Africa. But his violent death, the reaction from his supporters, and the ongoing speculation about it have touched raw nerves.

The anger I've heard from black colleagues is well summed up in this piece by Andile Mngxitama.

I recently got a phone call from someone very close to the ANC leadership. He sounded genuinely worried. "It's been the worst possible week for race relations - especially with the World Cup coming," he said.

And then, of course, there is Julius Malema - the enfant terrible of South African politics - I wrote about him in more detail recently here. He has been mouthing off about Zimbabwe, as well as President Zuma and a BBC colleague here in Johannesburg.malema226ap.jpg See here and here for more.

That prompted another prominent ANC official to write privately to our office to express his fury that "my leaders desert the core values of my movement by not repudiating every odious statement he makes". Eventually the ANC did publicly condemn Mr Malema's comments.

Julius Malema reminds me increasingly of a man called Vladimir Zhirinovsky who used to play the populist clown in post-Soviet Russia, but who also gained a significant popular following and was often suspected of being a frontman for more powerful forces. Does anyone have any better comparisons?

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