Shooting highlights racial inequities in South Africa

Leaders call for calm, dialogue in aftermath of Wednesday's 'race'

Days after President Thabo Mbeki called for a national forum to heal racial divisions, a white man boarded a bus and opened fire on blacks.

Four people were killed, and three others were injured, in the rush-hour attack Wednesday evening in Pretoria.

The incident instantly renewed debate on painful race issues that continue to dominate almost every aspect of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

"It is shocking because we have made such significant steps in this country toward reconciliation," said Methodist Bishop Mvume Dandala. "But I am maddened by the ... ease with which we opt for violent responses in this society. "Leaders in our communities - whether it is religion or school or sports - must rise to the challenge to teach our people to respond differently to pressure."

Callers jammed the lines of the country's most popular talk-radio station to vent feelings on everything from white domination in rugby to a proposed equity law that seeks to curb racism by banning derogatory words like "kaffir,"the equivalent of "nigger."

It is clear that the race divide has not been closed since the country's first "miracle" all-race election in 1994 and the highly-lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to heal apartheid-era wounds.

"The public reactions [to this incident] show that, socially, South Africans have not yet dealt with the past," says Tlhoki Mofokeng, a public-policy analyst at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Politicians of all stripes immediately expressed concerns that the violent incident could spark revenge attacks.

"If any white murders a black person simply because of skin color, then this has the capacity to destabilize our entire society," says Tony Leon, leader of the liberal Democratic Party.

President Mbeki called for calm. "This incident must be regarded as a tragedy by all South Africans - black and white," Mbeki said. "We should all work toward a situation where there isn't a repetition of a tragedy of this nature."

Mbeki has never sugar-coated festering racial divisions in the so-called "Rainbow Nation." While former president Nelson Mandela focused intensely on reconciliation, Mbeki talks about South Africa as "two nations." One is white and rich, the other black and poor.

Since leading the African National Congress to victory in the second democratic elections last June, Mbeki has consistently pushed ahead with changes to ensure the fruits of democracy are enjoyed by the black majority.

"We have not won the struggle against racism," Mbeki said last weekend. He talked of convening a National Congress Against Racism this year to formulate a broad-based program of action against "racism as we enter the first year of the African Century."

Part of the problem, however, is that what Mbeki and most of his black constituents regard as "action" for equality,many marginalized whites view as a threat to their social position and pride.

New employment-equity legislation has often been scorned by whites, who fear it will put them out of a job. The law forces companies to draw up plans this year to promote black people, women, and the disabled.

The government also is working on a controversial bill that would ban the use of racist words and see the creation of "equality courts"- where the accused racists would have to prove their innocence (rather than their guilt, as is the usual legal practice).

Last year, the government stopped short of imposing race quotas on rugby and cricket teams that the ANC had condemned as "lily white" - but it has made clear sporting federations must develop plans to promote black players. And the country's Human Rights Commission released a report saying the media is guilty of perpetuating racism.

Extensive surveys conducted by the country's Independent Newspapers group last year concluded that attitudes about reconciliation vary widely across the races. Of 3,000 whites questioned, only 2 percent were categorized as "new" South Africans - which was roughly defined as people who believe in land redistribution, subsidized services for the poor, free water to shanty towns, and a stretch of land for people who have worked their whole lives on farms.

"To whites, reconciliation means apartheid with international rugby matches," concluded the report. "To blacks, it means having what whites have."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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