Being PC in S. Africa Is a Social Minefield

With blacks now in power, whites speak carefully to avoid offense -- and hide the Mandela bathmats

TO succeed socially in the new South Africa, whites wishing to be politically correct avoid making faux pas and obsolete racial references with great delicacy.

Jobs, friends, or one's reputation can vanish with poorly chosen gestures or phrases. With South Africa just one year into a multiracial government, the new social rules baffle even the most blase or politically sensitive.

White liberals debate whether to give the maid the night off when black friends come to dinner. It is de rigueur in progressive circles to show up (nonchalantly, of course) at jazz clubs with a date of another race. And that is not enough -- the politically correct image also demands a whole new wardrobe and car.

Language is where the new PC rules are most evident. Some people of mixed race -- long known as ''coloureds'' -- now insist on being called ''black.'' Others are offended by that term and prefer the old one. Likewise, it is acceptable for liberal whites to jokingly use racial slurs like ''darkie'' when with close black friends. But using such terms with mere aquaintances can be a bit dicey.

Perplexed by the array of choices, a group of whites from the trendy Yeoville area of Johannesburg have chosen to avoid this social minefield and refer to non-whites as ''evergreen'' (a word apparently chosen because it was devoid of racial connotation).

The workplace provides its own set of new standards. It is a rare employer who does not advertise in big letters ''AFFIRMATIVE ACTION'' when seeking to fill a job vacancy. Those who object to the term use the euphemism ''African languages required'' or, in the case of one rather unsubtle multinational, publish a picture of a black person.

But be advised to pursue affirmative action properly. Dinner parties resound with shudders over the cautionary tale of one white progressive publisher who asked two upwardly mobile blacks to join the masthead of his new magazine. He made the fatal error of neglecting to invite them to a launch party -- and they promptly quit his board.

It is not just enough to behave PC -- there is also a whole new dress code. Although President Nelson Mandela prefers to dress casually (without a tie whenever possible), other members of the new black elite have set a fresh sartorial standard: fine Italian shoes, tailored suits, and silk ties. White leftists are also jumping on the bandwagon, throwing away the sandals and worn leather jackets that were their trademark when fighting apartheid. The wardrobe is sometimes varied with traditional African robes, preferably from somewhere exotic -- far afield like Nigeria or Dakar. Beat-up Volkswagon Beetles have been replaced by the BMWs (equipped with the obligatory cellular phones) that prove one has made it after years of struggle.

Debate rages over whether it is politically correct to own Mandela kitsch -- coffee mugs, clocks, bathmats, aprons, and salt and pepper shakers with his image. The common wisdom is that something small, like a key chain, is acceptable. Even better is a casually hung poster in your living room, one from the underground struggle days, preferably torn with bullet holes.

The new South African flag -- which one pundit likened to a beach towel -- is politically correct even for those who did not fight apartheid. Many people who balked at the green/red/ blue/yellow/white/black banner when it was first hoisted last year, now proudly sport tiny lapel pins or bumper stickers with it.

Some people have an intuitive flair for how to act in this new age. A Zulu friend approached an English-style country inn about holding his wedding there, expecting a negative response. The white manager didn't blink an eye when informed that several hundred black township residents would be converging on his immaculate grounds for the event.

''What's more, he said we could use the lawn for the ritual sacrifice of a beast,'' marvelled the friend. ''You can't get more PC than that.''

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