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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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