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Another race row in South Africa

Andrew Harding | 13:38 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

It's a topic that blisters to the surface every few weeks here in South Africa. The rainbow nation is still understandably, sometimes unhealthily, often obsessively preoccupied with issues of race.

But this particular blister is a little different. Instead of the usual, fairly predictable black/white rows about "Shoot the Boer" or the transformation policies of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) or a dozen other familiar triggers, the current focus is on the country's mixed-race or coloured population.

Today one of South Africa's most senior politicians - himself a member of the coloured community - launched a searing attack against the government's loose-cannon of a spokesman, Jimmy Manyi, calling him a "worst-order racist" and condemning his "acute lack of judgement."

Minister of the Presidency Trevor Manuel was incensed by Mr Manyi's suggestion - last year - that coloured people are "over-concentrated" in the Western Cape Province - a comment that seemed to hark back uncomfortably to the forced relocations of the apartheid era.

An issue of principle? No doubt. But there's politics at play too, of course, with Mr Manuel and the ANC looking for ways to woo the coloured vote in the Western Cape away from their fierce rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA). This storm follows another, smaller scandal involving a newspaper columnist who ranted - probably in jest, but without the balm of wit - about coloured stereotypes, and was promptly sacked.

Like sun spots, these disputes seem to flare up more strongly from time to time.

Sometimes they're flimsy, sometimes political, and often they point to deeper tensions within the country.

A few weeks ago I visited the tiny, exclusively Afrikaner community of Orania, where some 900 white people are busy trying to create a stronghold for their particular culture and identity.

Carel Boshoff, the town's mayor told me that the notion of a rainbow nation was "an optical illusion, like a rainbow itself. A nice concept but far from reality... A flash in the pan, which seemed so wonderful but wore off like a bad hangover."

But I don't share his pessimism - or realism as he'd call it. The frictions may be endless, but most South Africans seem to muddle through.

Besides, as society evolves, it's increasingly tempting to substitute the word "class" for "race." No-one has a monopoly on good sense when it comes to any of this, but for my money, South Africa's comedians tend to make a better job of nailing it, than its politicians.

By the way, if you use twitter, you can now follow me on @hardingbbc


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