Changing faces

Observations on South Africa

Historically, South Africa's whites have not been well known for their racial tolerance. But there are signs that they are making a fitful peace with their adopted homeland.

"We are African!" chorused a group of Afrikaner students outside government offices this month - demanding that President Thabo Mbeki reclassify them as Africans.

Affirmative-action legislation enacted this year bears the whiff of apartheid-era stratification. According to the department of labour, individuals must classify themselves African, Indian, coloured or white. Ironically, the same African National Congress (ANC) government that fought for racial equality seems to have imbibed the values of racial separateness - equating African with black.

In response, a group of Afrikaner students blackened up with face paint in protest at what they see as a campaign of discrimination against them in public sector jobs and education.

"There is lots of discrimination against whites. We are responsible for all the wrongs of the past . . . so now we can't get jobs, salaries or into university," said a 23-year-old graduate, Merwe de Villiers.

"We will not allow racial ideology to deprive us of our African identity," said Ernst Roets, a student in the capital, Pretoria.

Sympathy may be hard to find. Twelve years after the end of white minority rule, many blacks remain resentful that many whites - who still maintain lives of privilege - fail to apologise for apartheid.

The thorny issue of white atonement came under the spotlight last month when Adriaan Vlok, the once-feared apartheid law and order minister, publicly got down on his knees and washed the feet of his one-time arch enemy Frank Chikane - whom Vlok had tried to have assassinated on at least one occasion.

"That Chikane allowed this man to wash his feet was the sickest thing ever heard in this new South Africa," wrote Justice Malala in his column in the Sowetan, a leading black daily. "Our people do not want a man like Vlok to wash one leader's feet and expect absolution. They want the truth."

Although many whites helped usher in democracy by voting for the ANC, others have since voted with their feet. The latest figures on white flight, published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, show that one million white people have fled the country since 1994 - the highest figure ever in South Africa's history.

John Kane-Berman, the institute's director, has called on the government to repeal its employment equity programmes in order to retain much-needed white skills. Others point out that white unemployment remains a fraction of its black counterpart.

But that hasn't stopped some whites wanting to be black - at least in order to gain access to equal opportunities.

"We whites want to reaffirm ourselves as Africans," said Callie Kriel, head of the civil rights group AfriForum, which organised the student rally. "At the moment we feel we are being robbed of our African identity and reduced to the status of second-class citizens on grounds of race - the country is being re-racialised."

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: a nation under siege