Old Issues of Black and White Stir Up the New South Africa

April 11 killing of a black infant by a white farmer points to still-simmering racial strife.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Angelina Zwane was born more than three years after South Africa's apartheid system was formally brought to an end. Yet many South Africans believe it was apartheid that killed her.

On April 11 Angelina, the six-month-old daughter of a poor, black domestic servant, was shot by her mother's employer on his farm near the outskirts of Johannesburg. Her nine-year-old cousin, Francina Dlamini, who was carrying her on her back, was seriously wounded by the same bullet.

The farmer, Nicholas Steyn, claimed the shooting was justified because the children were trespassing on his land.

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The killing has shocked the world, and left many South Africans wondering how much has really changed from the old days of white privilege. Together with a number of other recent incidents, it has also led to worries of rising ethnic tensions in a country where race is still the greatest single issue in political, social, and economic life.

"South Africa has ... managed to come through the transition [from white rule] with as little trouble as we have," says Shaun Mackay, a spokesman for the nonprofit South African Institute for Race Relations in Johannesburg. "There have been very few of these incidents compared with the heyday of apartheid ... but a couple of these ... incidents now could lead to trouble."

For most South Africans - black and white - the shooting of the two children was horrific enough in itself. But details that emerged in its aftermath have only intensified public outrage. The police's initial failure to take Mr. Steyn into custody because he was "cooperative" and had a fixed address reminded many angry blacks of times not long ago when white farmers were able to assault and even kill black workers with near impunity.

The police have also been accused of gross insensitivity after reporters said they witnessed two detectives - one black, one white - manhandling and aggressively interrogating Francina as she lay recuperating from her gunshot wound in hospital.

The revelation that Angelina's mother, Susan Dlamini, was working seven days a week for Steyn's family in return for a mud hut and $40 a month has highlighted the fact that many poor blacks still work as near-slave laborers for their employers (although by no means are all of these white).

According to Mrs. Dlamini, Steyn's first action after shooting her daughter was to fire Dlamini and order her off his property.

Even more troubling was the reaction of other white farmers living near the Steyns. The Saturday Star newspaper in Johannesburg reported that several of them felt Steyn - who often mounted lone vigilante patrols at night - must have had good reason to shoot the children.

Many farmers said they were bitter that President Nelson Mandela had visited Angelina's family. They claim that the government showed no such concern for more than 500 white farmers killed by black criminals in recent years.

"When did he last visit a white farmer whose family had been attacked?" neighbor Pat Brink told the Saturday Star. "There are far more whites being killed by blacks than the other way around. Look at the fuss about this one black kid."

Many commentators worry that South African whites, and particularly rural Afrikaaners (descendants of 17th-century Dutch colonists) like Steyn, may have failed to grasp the new realities of majority rule.

The killing comes fresh on the heels of recent racial clashes at a high school in Vryburg, northwest of Johannesburg. Last month, white parents and policemen attacked black pupils who were demonstrating against continuing racial segregation in what, until four years ago, was a whites-only school. Journalists witnessed white adults assaulting black boys and girls with sjamboks (whips).

Black policemen were forced to defend the pupils.

The South African Institute of Race Relations is also worried about black-on-white racism, which it says it is beginning to detect in political life. According to Mr. Mackay, it is increasingly common for black officials to respond to opposition criticism of their policies by accusing their critics of racism.

"Instead of attempting to justify themselves, they play the race card," he says. "That does not help race relations at all."

This criticism is rejected by the government. Mr. Mandela's spokesman, Joel Netshitenzhe, says that racist "paradigms" often underlie criticism of government policy.

For instance, he says, opposition criticism of lowering standards for university admissions could be a smoke screen for defending white privilege. High requirements could discriminate against underprivileged blacks, he says.

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