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South Africa - race revisited

Andrew Harding | 14:44 UK time, Monday, 3 May 2010

I watched a nuanced, entertaining production of Othello the other night, put on by students at Johannesburg's Wits University and directed by the legendary South African actor, John Kani. As you might expect, the cast and audience were a cosmopolitan mixture of races and attitudes.

Shakespeare's tragedy invariably provokes discussions about race - a particularly sensitive topic in this country at the moment. "This play," John Kani writes in the programme notes, "gives us the opportunity to examine how much our attitudes have changed (or not)."othello595.jpg

I am well aware of the complexities, and passions stirred by the issue here in South Africa. Some of the fault lines were starkly revealed in the responses to an earlier blog I wrote. It is a profoundly subjective topic but I thought I would share a handful of conversations I've had on the subject over the past week. They cannot, of course, be representative and I would not want to understate the threats and challenges facing South Africa, but what I heard suggests to me that when it comes to racial issues there is still a lot more common sense and moderation in this country than some of the uglier headlines and stories imply.

After watching Othello, I went round to the dressing room to talk to the lead - played by Kani's imposing son, Atandwa - and to Lidiya Marelic, who made a stoic Desdemona.

"It's striking how relevant this play still is.... We've romanticized the notion of a rainbow nation and sold that to the world... We're still healing, still walking wounded. It will take quite a while for us to be in harmony, if ever. So it's not really surprising that (racial tensions) are still coming up," Mr Kani said.

"We thought we were making a hell of a lot of progress and then this (Eugene Terreblanche's murder, and the controversy over the Shoot the Boer song) comes back. There's disappointment that this is coming up again - anger. But it's just in little pockets - little people brewing and causing trouble. The majority of the country is as it was - making progress and looking forward to the World Cup."

"It's very cosmopolitan here. For me, in my life, it's not the biggest issue - in my immediate life I don't experience it, but in the news, and if you go around to other parts of Joburg you definitely do see racism," said Ms Marelic.

"At a time when the whole world's eyes are on South Africa for the World Cup, we thought we would show everyone how far we've come. Now for that to happen and set us back a few steps - we're all going wow, where is this coming from?" she asked.

An hour and a half's drive outside Johannesburg, in the countryside east of Pretoria, I met a group of Afrikaaner farmers who had gathered for a monthly meeting to discuss security and other issues. Hennie Van Der Walt, 41, is the local rural security coordinator, who liaises with the police. After the meeting, he invited me back to his farm, and explained that the community experienced three main types of attacks:

- Straightforward burglary of farm or home possessions.

- Violent robberies, where the criminals torture their victims in the hope of making them reveal the whereabouts of cash and/or weapons.

- "Hits" arranged by disgruntled farm workers angry about pay and conditions, usually carried out by others, and seldom involving robbery.

"The criminal intent is to steal. Farm workers are also victims of crime, so according to me it's definitely not a racial issue. It's about crime," said Mr Van Der Walt.

"I'm also an Afrikaaner. My skin is white and I talk Afrikaans but don't associate me with extremists. That's why they're called extreme - they're totally against the flow of everything. My personal belief is that they're a very small portion. But you must recognize there is a potential threat, and it only takes one match to light a huge veldt fire... of racial tension. Hopefully most of us have learnt that we must work together to progress forward. A farmer is a businessman. We keep ourselves busy with what we do on farms. I don't see race as an issue. We've got a common interest," he said.

"We share everything. There is no race problems around here," said William Mashiya, 48, a black farmer who owns 20 hectares next to Mr Van Der Walt's farm.

"When we need something from a white we just ask. Even whites do come to our houses to borrow a spanner or a spare wheel. It will get better. More better. Black people and white people - we are all creatures of God so no need to fight each other. So the racism, I think, it will stop. That's my wish."

S'tshwetla is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Alexandra, a crowded and often tense townshipo n the north-eastern edge of Johannesburg. There's a line of filthy "portaloos" on one side of a muddy track, then a warren of tin and brick shacks stretch down to a rubbish-clogged stream. I wandered round with a black colleague, asking people about race, Julius Malema, and whom they blamed for the rising inequality in South Africa.

"White people have a lot of money. More than black people," said Beauty Palani.

Does that make you angry? I asked. "No, they don't make us angry. They helping us, they give us job, everything. My child is eating because of whites. No tension. We are the same now."

"Me I don't have a problem with whites. Whites are the ones who make business. We get jobs from them. Our mothers work in white houses. Without whites we're going to start down(hill). It will be worse, like Zimbabwe," said Mpotseng.

"I can't say white people kept the money away from us. No. I think we must learn how to work with black and white together to share this economy, to share everything. But now we can't blame white people. Malema mustn't stir up anger against whites," said Gladys Mdau.

Who do you blame? "I'm blaming my government."

Rosebank Mall is a prosperous shopping arcade in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg with a fairly mixed clientele. Former actor and talkshow host Nkhensani Manganyi markets her own, elegant designs at a clothes shop on the first floor.

"People are volatile, people are uncertain, insecure and the last thing we should do is create more of that. We should really be trying to unify South Africa and create hope, and right now there is hope in some places and in others no hope at all. We need to create a balance, and we need a lot of healing. But I'm an eternal optimist. We've done miraculous things before. We have it in us to be tenacious and to overcome."


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  • 1. At 4:21pm on 03 May 2010, Mariel Ortis wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 2. At 6:10pm on 03 May 2010, Anna Sempe wrote:

    Unfortunately many arguments between the haves and have-nots still boil down to racial issues in South Africa. I do believe that although Mr Mandela brought the country away from apartheid peacefully, South Africans - particularly black South Africans still hold much bitterness. And possibly rightfully so, given that economically they are still significantly disadvantaged. Wealth has been redistributed but only to a select few so-called black diamonds while the masses face more harsh physical issues like lack of basic service delivery and violent crime.

    The issue with Eugene Terre'blanche's murder and Julius Malema's singing of the Shoot the Boer struggle anthem is indeed disappointing. Regardless of ethic background, it is sadly clear that racism in South Africa is still alive and well. Luckily South Africans are not a fragile bunch that are at risk of snapping at any moment (touch wood!). They are a resilient lot and that's keeping it from becoming an all-out bloodbath.

    Hopefully, the 2010 World Cup will do for South African race relations now what the historic South African rugby victory did during Nelson Mandela's tenure in the 1990s!

    Anna Sempe

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  • 3. At 6:35pm on 03 May 2010, Back 2 Blighty wrote:

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain

  • 4. At 00:51am on 04 May 2010, grim wrote:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Positivity that we really need. Thank you!

    Can't wait for the World Cup - even though I won't be there.

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  • 5. At 10:09am on 04 May 2010, Andrew wrote:

    Hi Andrew. Racism does exist. In pockets of extremism, but also in a generalized sort of way, for example race still governs the interactions of my parents with strangers, yet they are comfortable having friends irrespective of race. My personal observations of it indicate stereotyping, racial generalizations and ignorance as causes, although there is a lot of fear and distrust involved as well. However a good dose of common sense usually kicks in and after a few awkward moments we usually figure out how stupid we are being and just carry on. Race in this country, like Julius, is an issue that generates more noise than it deserves.

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  • 6. At 12:39pm on 04 May 2010, maritza wrote:

    Most black people will tell you that white people have all / a lot of money. This is not really true. I am a white female, i am married and i have a son. We can't afford to buy a house. So where's all my money? If you want to see the real people with money - just look at our goverment. The ANC officials are the people with real money. Then you get someone like the ANC youth league president who fuel the hate against white people, but he has more money than i will ever have. He lives in luxury, he has absolutely nothing to complain about. He also sings "shoot the boer" but what he doesn't realise is that these "boere" are the people who make sure that this country has "mielies" and food for his own people to eat. Stop shooting / killing the farmers, because if you carry on doing it, we won't have any food in SA anymore, we will have to import all our food, and that will make things more expensive, so the poorest of the poor is going to get even more poor, while Julias will still sit in his fancy house in Sandton - he doesn't care about you, he is just using you!

    Then there is one thing i wish all black people will come to realise. Apartheid is over, it's been over for many many years. Most of us wasn't even a part of it, and we don't all agree with what went on. Stop hating all white people for what was done in the past. I don't sit at home thinking about ways to undermine black people. I just want to live in peace. I want to go to work, i want to come home and spend time with my family - that's it. I don't think about nasty things to do or say to black people. Not all white people hate black people - please realise this.

    Another thing is poverty: I would love to have a house full of children, but i can't afford it, so i only have one child. Don't you think if black people started seeing it this way poverty will get better? If you can't afford to look after 6 or 7 children, then don't have so many kids. Contraceptives are available at all clinics, there is no excuse to have so many children that you can't look after or feed or send to school.

    HIV aids is another thing: Take all the rapists off the streets then this problem will already become better. Know your status, be faithfull. It's really not that difficult. Use protection.

    Racism. Seems like most people think this is a white thing only. This is not true. I'm not going to go into this, but the anc youth league president is one of the biggest racists i have ever seen - and the sad thing is that our president does absolutely nothing to stop him. How are we supposed to be a rainbow nation and go forward if Julias fuels racism in our country.

    Crime is out of control in SA, the police force are 90% just as corrupt. At this stage there is about 10 000 police officers in jail themselves???

    Our goverment is a disaster, most of them are corrupt and only thinking about ways to further their own financial position, they don't care about what's going on with the rest of us.

    If Racism, Crime and corruption can be stopped things will be better for all of us!

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  • 7. At 09:07am on 06 May 2010, karen wrote:

    go on andrew "wow" the overseas crowd - let them come - come live a day in SA, I promise you will never forget it.

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  • 8. At 10:49am on 13 May 2010, ReturnedExile wrote:

    It is a simple fact that most white South Africans are vastly better off than most black South Africans. Black South Africans can of course see this. But there is remarkably little resentment about it, at least in my experience. I was driving somewhere with a (black, very poor) friend recently and the car in front of us pulled off the road. She asked what they were doing and I said I thought they had stopped to look at the view. She sighed and said, entirely without rancour, 'it must be nice to be white.' I think this anecdote pretty much sums things up.

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  • 9. At 11:29am on 13 May 2010, Andrew Harding BBC wrote:

    A really poignant anecdote (8). Thanks for sharing it.

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  • 10. At 6:16pm on 13 May 2010, kiron wrote:

    Whites are better off than blacks that fact remains....Maybe so..

    It's larger than that...Education was not part of the African Culture, this is not theory..There are no written records, no long stories, no great authors for centuries from Africa....

    Whites have had centuries of consistent education, that has made it part of their culture...They had a jump start on the blacks...

    Education alone will vastly determine your salary, it's really that simple..Go get a masters' degree and see your salary increase by at last $10,000 dollars...

    Interestingly enough, India which was freed in 1947, did not have a so-called "culture" of education as well. The majority of indian people were uneducated. But from that year 1947, the Indian government,the people, and the families made such a strong commitment to education, that now they produce more graudates than most countries in the world, their educational attainment is clearly seen even in America being the highest race earners beating out Cacausians and Jews...

    It highlights the fact that education can become culture...Its just not about throwing money at it like South Africa does, but parents who push their kids for success..I would not be here, and the same applies to you if it were not for that reason.

    African family structure is largely chaotic in the poor segments --- the fatherless rate is 70%...How are they going to learn? It's obvious blacks are just as educated as white counterparts, but it's the family structure that fails the communities over and over again...

    Income inequality is in my opinion the largest factor in determining crime, and high amounts of crime..It's basic humanity to envy, and when envy turns into wants, and wants turn into need, you have violence.

    And When you cannot get what you want, you have South Africa crime.....Its more about social class, than race itself...

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  • 11. At 5:20pm on 28 Oct 2010, Coach wrote:

    @Kiron - I have no idea what your basis for saying that India pre-1947 did not value education or have a 'culture' of education. That is rubbish. It is certainly not that some miraculous change occurred post independence - the value and culture was always there. Education however was and still is to a large extent of varying importance depending on social class.. that is where the major change has been occurring over the last 2 decades.

    @Anna Sempe (#2) - well said and I have to agree with you. Even the foreign fellow Africans working in South Africa claim that there is much bitterness here.

    Until wealth is redistributed properly in South Africa (and by that I mean not through the BEE programmes), the pre-1994 status quo remains.

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  • 12. At 9:48pm on 01 Nov 2010, Kendle wrote:

    I do not agree that the status quo remains the same. For one the parliament has a totally different outlook. The legal system/ transport and schooling is no longer separated on racial accounts. People can actually hang out on the same beaches now....nonetheless these changes in politics have not had a de facto change in peoples lives. In fact inequality remains in all of the above mentioned.
    I do agree that redistribution needs to take place...the question is how??
    BEE stands to benefit the most well off Africans, and has done little for the average thats a no.
    Violence and conflict? It definitely is the end line and can often change systems that have deep problems. nevertheless it tortures a generation and for obvious reasons is not seen as a success.
    Education?! perhaps this could be where redistribution could really happen...yes you have to wait a generation. and yes there is obvious problems with inheritance continuing the inequality, however education is the one peaceful means that offers people a sensible way to freedom. (plus the other advantages).
    Kiron- you need to read more there is a large amount of African literature (maybe start with Achebe). As for no education, I believe there is long stories, told through generations by word of mouth...a fantastic memory is needed for these stories as many go on for days not hours. Yes the comment about the jump start is true...but a jump start to what?? pollution, obsession with wealth, and continuing rise in mental health problems? I believe that South Africa could make its own way, that is not the same, and thus the jump start is useless as they are in a different race!
    As for education being the same...not so! there is a definite divide, you just need to walk past a private school to see it...
    however this is all a bit gloomy...karen is right its awesome, amasing and lovely! and it certainly made me go 'wow'! I think RSA has a lot going for it, and inequality is just another factor it needs to concur. hopefully Zuma will throw more money at the problem of education, housing, sanitation and health. And hopefully this money will be transformed into real changes that make a positive difference to those who unfortunately have not had a good quality of life thus far. First stop education!

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  • 13. At 10:44pm on 29 Apr 2011, Justin Staples wrote:

    It's been interesting to stumble across this article from a year back and note the current follow-on events with the ongoing Malema hate speech trial in South Africa. Not sure if the readership is skewed racially but the results of the poll in that post were telling.

    It's unlikely that race will stop being a major issue in South Africa. I've visited the country a few times and each time it appears to be a constant topic of conversation - and that too regardless of which race you speak to. I would be curious to read your thoughts Andrew, now that you've been in SA for a while.

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