Life in the New South Africa: Racial Strife Slowly Easing

A year after Mandela took power, races mingle more and even intermarry

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Deborah Patta, the white news editor of South Africa's independent Radio 702, announced on air earlier this month that she planned to marry a black man, she was amazed by the overwhelming response of listeners who phoned in to congratulate her.

She and her fiance, filmmaker Mweli Mzizi, had encountered hostility as an interracial couple for a year. Stones were thrown at a house they once stayed in, and they were denied entry to a nightclub.

Ms. Patta saw the positive reception as a sign of change since democratic elections one year ago, when President Nelson Mandela swept to power to head the first black-majority government. He came preaching reconciliation after decades of violent hatred.

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''It was a big change from last year; racist attitudes are breaking down. Then such an announcement would have provoked controversy,'' she says. ''It was amazing how overwhelmingly positive the response was. Across the board, black and white callers phoned in to congratulate me.''

Racial divides still exist a year after one of the world's most segregated systems -- which banned interracial marriages until the 1980s -- fell. The 5-to-1 black majority still largely lives in squalid townships. But slowly the gap is narrowing, and the races are learning to live together.

The mood on the streets, in offices, and at parties is more relaxed. Upwardly mobile blacks like Mr. Mzizi are more confident about moving into formerly white domains. Blacks now walk the halls of political power. And many conservative whites, who feared black rule and contemplated leaving the country or even civil war, find that the new world is not as bad as they had feared.

''We're seeing a definite easing of racial tensions,'' says Patrick Kelly, director of the Human Rights Commission here. ''There was a lot of tension before the elections. Many whites feared they would lose their jobs and homes. That has not happened, and they have been reassured by Mandela's conciliatory statements.''

Reflecting the new mood, television commercials try to woo the emerging black middle class. Job advertisements in newspapers seek applicants with African languages and announce ''affirmative action'' employers. Blacks are more visible in the media. Political rhetoric now focuses on social programs for the disadvantaged; under white rule it was about protecting the status quo.

Integration in education is progressing much faster than many had anticipated. A significant number of black pupils have moved from dilapidated township schools to the formerly exclusively white, semiprivatized ''Model C'' schools that have been forced by the government to take students regardless of race.

''The opening of the first school year in the new, nonracial South Africa went reasonably well.... In historical perspective, of course, it was again like the elections -- little short of miraculous in view of the major attitudinal changes it represents,'' wrote Peter Randall, director of teacher education at the University of Witwatersrand in a recent article.

No one denies there are problems, however. The South African Institute of Race Relations here warns that progress will be slow as long as impoverished blacks lack the resources, money, and education to get ahead. There have been few strides in housing integration, for instance. Although elite like Mandela live in formerly all-white suburbs, most blacks cannot afford to move there.

The Institute is particularly concerned about a spate of black-white clashes on college campuses across the country, a rise of prejudice against blacks by coloureds (mixed race), and an increased African militancy among black youths.

''Ironically, it is essentially conservative white South Africans who are more accomodating. Liberal white South Africans have grown more conservative,'' says the Institute's spokesman, Paul Pereira. ''Maybe it is something that was hidden which is coming out. But many middle-class blacks feel more confident expressing antiwhite sentiment. And many white liberals are less willing to make excuses for blacks.''

Much of the anger centers around affirmative action, which has been actively pushed, while not yet legislated, by Mandela's government. Coloureds in particular feel left out, claiming that blacks are favored. White males particularly in middle management feel threatened. But while surveys report that most companies endorse some form of equal opportunity, experts report limited strides.

With blacks lagging behind in education and new job vacancies limited, many executives complain there are not enough qualified black candidates or resources to train them.

''There has been very limited progress,'' said Wendy Luhabe, president of Bridging the Gap, a management consultancy here that focuses on affirmative action. ''There is no commitment by the captains of industry. They want to maintain the status quo.''

Labor expert Duncan Innes said the greatest progress in affirmative action had been made by larger companies, especially the big state-run firms that have the capacity to hire more people. At utility giant Eskom, for instance, half the executive directors are black. But smaller companies tend to lag behind.

Mr. Innes warns of a backlash against affirmative action, like that seen in the United States, but says the path toward multiracialism is set. ''Certainly among the business sector there is a willingness to go the affirmative-action route. Now they feel it is something they have to do,'' he says.

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