In South Africa, a 'sign' of the battle against racism

Four hundred businesses in rural South Africa are now displaying a small window sticker with a strong message: 'No racists allowed.'

Entering the Heavenly Touch Hair Studio is like taking a step back in time. Red plastic swivel chairs sit on a checkerboard of retro black-and-white linoleum.

But amid the faded posters advertising hair straighteners and dye there is a decidedly modern South African touch. A small, black and orange sign warns visitors that here at Heavenly Touch, certain behavior just won't be allowed.

"Right of admission reserved," it reads. "No racists allowed."

Over the past year, the "no-racists" signs have been showing up in business windows around this notoriously conservative town.

While their reception by whites has been lukewarm - and at times even hostile - and most here say that there are still miles to go on the road to equality, the signs are a symbol of growing black empowerment in a former apartheid stronghold.

"These signs are a warning that racism and violence aren't acceptable in the new South Africa," says Jeanne Nolte, a soft-spoken white housewife and mother of four who developed the stickers as part of her new nongovernmental organization, the Anti-Racist Movement (ARM). "[Racists] have got to realize they're outnumbered. They're never going to win."

Polokwane, until recently called Pietersburg, is a small, provincial capital in the heart of South Africa's great northern plains. The city was founded in 1886 by white Afrikaans farmers trekking their way northward from the Cape in search of fresh farmland. Though its once segregated downtown now throngs with blacks, the city and surrounding farmland is still known as a bastion of white conservatism.

This area was the only part of the country that rejected a referendum supporting then-President F.W. de Klerk's efforts to end apartheid, South Africa's state-sponsored discrimination policies.

Several high-profile incidents of racial violence have occurred here. Two years ago, for example, a 17-year-old boy was beaten to death by nine members of a rugby team after being caught poaching.

But Randy Mashele, the young, married owner of the Heavenly Touch, whose elaborately braided hair is a walking advertisement, says that for most South African blacks, it's often the little things that still rankle.

She offers an example.

"In the banks, most of the white people don't queue," she says. "They think that because they're white they shouldn't have to wait in line. But when you confront them, they just use vulgar language and make you feel bad.

"Things are 5 percent better, but 95 percent the same," she says sadly. "There were places where blacks could not go where now we can go, but the attitude of whites has not changed."

Goal: every business window

Ms. Nolte initially began selling the signs as a fundraiser for her fledgling organization, but they've now taken on a life of their own, becoming far bigger and more visible than the group itself. About 400 businesses in Polokwane now display the sticker, and hundreds more have been sent to admirers in the country. Nolte would like to see every window in every town in South Africa bear her sign.

But not everyone has reacted well to the campaign.

Nolte herself received threats after her phone number was printed in a local newspaper, and workers for her organization have been run off properties while trying to sell the signs. Most of the signs have been sold to black or Indian shopkeepers or to whites whose customer base is primarily black.

J.P. Nel, owner of the Thatch Palace, a small hotel, butchery, and liquor store, is insulted by the insinuation in the signs that he is a racist.

"My company is not racist, neither do we support racism," he says, explaining why he will never put the orange and black sign in the window of one of his businesses. "But by putting up a sign like that you are actually practicing racism."

"If there's a person, who, in his private capacity doesn't want to mix with people of other races," he explains, "by excluding him from my store, I'm being racist."

But, he emphasizes, there isn't much racism left in Polokwane.

Wasted time

Tienie Van Wyngaard, a former apartheid-era policeman and owner of Meat for Africa, a small butchery on a bustling downtown street, disagrees. There is still racism and a need to combat it.

That's why the antiracism sign is displayed prominently above the cash register in his store.

"Looking back, that was wasted time," he says of his years protecting the apartheid state. "There's still a lot of progress to be made, though. There's not enough trust between the races, between black and white."

Times are changing, however, and people like Mr. Wyngaard and Ms. Mashele say they hope the next generation of Polokwane residents will not have to struggle as hard as they have to make connections across racial lines.

"My sons, their attitudes are already different," he says. "It's not unusual for them to have black friends. They go to the same schools and play on the same sports teams. In my day, we didn't have black friends, because we didn't mix."

'Truth' commission's final report

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - South Africa's historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which traded immunity for confessions by those who committed atrocities during the country's apartheid era, closed i=?250-134??127?'ts doors last Friday.

The commission's 2,000-page report is both a testimony to the successes of the TRC process and a frank analysis of its failures.

Over seven years, more than 22,000 South Africans testified to their victimization; more than 7,000 applied for amnesty from prosecution, with some 1,200 being accepted; and more than 1,000 missing people were accounted for.

But as the report makes clear, many stories are still untold, many perpetrators are still unrepentant, and the fate of many of the missing - some 477 people - is still unknown. The end of the TRC, warn observers, does not mean South Africa's reconciliation is complete.

"However successful, the TRC was the beginning, not the end, of the process," says Graeme Simpson, director of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. There is still much untold about South Africa's apartheid past, says Mr. Simpson, and the inequalities and emotional damage of those years remain.

Without specifically supporting the lawsuits against companies that benefited from apartheid, the report calls for businesses to give back to South Africa. And it asks the government to pay about $375 million in individual reparations to the more than 18,000 people named in the TRC report.

Accepting the final report, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki said that the issue of reparations would be addressed in Parliament. Some money has already been set aside for reparations, but the government has dragged its feet on its allocation, saying they wanted to wait until the final report was released.

Despite the international attention the commission received, the report says many groups within South Africa failed to support the process. P.W. Botha, president of South Africa during some of the country's most violent years, refused to appear before the commission, while subsequent president F.W. de Klerk, in his original testimony, claimed that he did not know about the grievous human rights abuses committed by the government. Over the weekend, Mr. de Klerk said in a statement that the process had failed.

As well, the leader of South Africa's second-largest black party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, who is now the country's minister of home affairs, never testified and tried to sue to stop the release of the final report. He rejects findings by the commission that his party was trained and given weapons by the government in an attempt to foment black-on-black violence. Even the African National Congress, which developed the TRC, submitted only a vague statement saying they had committed atrocities during the liberation struggle - hardly the full disclosure required by the law authorizing the TRC.

The TRC, begun in the wake of historic 1994 elections which ended a half-century of white rule, became an international model for countries trying to come to terms with dark pasts. Peru, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Serbia have implemented similar tribunals, with mixed success.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was instrumental in founding the commission, was optimistic about what South Africa accomplished as he gave the report to Mr. Mbeki.

"God has set us up, improbably, as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world," Mr. Tutu said before handing over the final volumes of the report to Mr. Mbeki. "Thus people in conflict areas of the world can say: 'If it could happen in South Africa, then it can happen anywhere.' "

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