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1 January 1999

A saint’s patience is tried, and found wanting

Nelson Mandela believes that South Africa's whites have betrayed him. John Carlin reports

By John Carlin

The little town of Rosendal is about 300 kilometres due south of Johannesburg, deep in the geographic centre of South Africa. It has a population of 2,000 and a highway divides the black and the white parts of the town.

The black part, where 1,800 people live, is a hive of small houses and tin shacks. The white part, where 200 people live, occupies twice the area of the black part; the houses, some with satellite dishes on their roofs, are spaced far apart; the roads around them are ordered in neat geometrical patterns.

The only black people who go into the white part are gardeners and housemaids; the only white person who ever goes into the black part is the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. The minister performs two services every Sunday: one in a big white church in white Rosendal, another in a small brown church in black Rosendal. Some 50 people attend the white service, in a church large enough to accommodate 300; some 500 people attend the black service, in a church designed to hold 150.

It would not occur either to a white person to attend the black service, or to a black person to attend the white one. This is the way things always were and the way they are likely to remain.

But here’s the novel development. Before the 1994 election, the right wing in Rosendal was spoiling for war. Draped in neo-Nazi regalia, armed to the teeth, they had been conditioned by half a century of state propaganda to believe that white South Africa’s eternal nightmares – pillage, rape, black hands reaching out from under matrimonial beds – would finally come true. But now whites have discovered to their amazement and secret delight that life continues much as before.

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Nelson Mandela, leading by example, preached a message to his followers of reconciliation, not revenge. They listened. The white churches have not been burned down; the farmers remain on their land. What is more, the rains have been good, the harvests have been rich and the TVs bring not only the previously forbidden delight of pornographic movies but good news of the South African rugby team, who in the pantheon of white Rosendal deities stand at the right hand of Christ the Saviour himself.

In Rosendal, as in the countryside generally, the spirit of apartheid lives on, but the prospect of war has receded. In the cities, however, war of sorts has come, disguised as crime. You will find more white beggars than before, and quite a lot more black people driving large German cars, but for the vast majority the old inequalities remain as stark as ever.

Take Johannesburg. Most black people live in small houses and shacks in Soweto, Alexandra, Katlehong and numberless other ghettos on the city’s outer periphery. Most white people live in homes larger than the European average, on the inner suburban ring. Most black people go to work in what South Africans call taxis, others call mini-buses; most white people go to work in their own cars. Johannesburg, too, has a highway cutting off the black people from the white but, unlike Rosendal, only in the mind.

What has changed is that white people look at black people with more distrust, more suspicion, than they used to. That is progress only in the sense that previously they didn’t look at black people at all. White people are obsessed with crime, and crime in the cities wears a black face.

You want to hear some of the crime stories I was told during my six weeks in South Africa, after nearly four years away from the country? How long have you got? Let’s start with the one about the old white lady whose son is a Jesuit priest. The priest has been working in Soweto for two years and no one has touched a hair on his head. His mother was sitting in her car in the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Killarney last month when a man (yes, a black man) opened the rear door and fired a shot into her back. Then, inexplicably, he ran off. She will never walk again. She may not live. When last I heard, she was on the critical list.

Here’s another one. I went to the house of an elderly (white) widow. She used to live in a proper big house but not long ago she moved to a small, terraced “cluster home”, encircled by high walls topped with electric fencing, protected round the clock by a guard at a gate. What it lacks in charm it makes up in peace of mind.

Well, up to a point. Once you have been vetted by the (black) guard and allowed through the main gate, you then have to unlock another gate to enter the widow’s small front garden. The front door is protected by another gate. Once you make it indoors, there is yet another gate at the foot of the staircase leading to the widow’s bedroom: she locks it before going to bed at night.

I made a little joke. Something along the lines of, “Christ, talk of overkill”. I wish I had shut up. The widow told me she had been burgled three times, on two occasions when she was in the house. Each time she was gagged and bound to a chair. She considers herself one of the lucky ones. They didn’t rape her; they didn’t kill her.

I could go on. The deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, remarked recently that the crime panic was all a matter of perception. But he is out of touch not just with his whingeing white compatriots but with the black ones, too. For them, danger has become so much a part of everyday life that to talk about the criminal threat is marginally more imaginative than to comment on Johannesburg’s relentlessly predictable good weather.

Making light of the crime epidemic is not the only way in which South Africa’s new rulers heighten racial tension. Sections of the ANC in parliament are clamouring for black players to be selected to the national cricket and rugby teams. They complain that these teams remain embarrassingly “lily-white”. The answer, they say, is affirmative action in sport. Which means, boiled down to its essentials, that players should be assigned to teams because of the colour of their skin.

Now, you can take away parliament from South African whites; you can take away the ministries of finance, transport, water and forestry. But when you start messing with their sport you are entering truly sensitive terrain. You are dealing with collective identity, pride, esteem. You are prodding the marrow of the matter.

Nothing has reinforced the white view that the blacks are selling the country down the river more than this call for racial quotas in sport. If you enforce affirmative action on the national teams, where will it end? You would have to apply the rules to provincial teams, regional teams, school teams. You’d end up having to dragoon individuals to play rugby or cricket who have no aptitude, and less interest, for these games, just so you can fill the politically correct slots. And why stop at rugby and cricket? Why not more whites among Olympic long-distance runners, more blacks in the Olympic rowing team, more Indians in the national darts team?

More sinister, if more discreet, has been the announcement by the Human Rights Commission that it plans to spend the first six months of 1999 investigating racism in the media. The commission, headed by a Thabo Mbeki acolyte, will set its sights in the first instance on The Mail and Guardian, known during the apartheid years as The Weekly Mail.

This is creepy. This is the newspaper that battled more bravely than any other to expose the iniquities of apartheid, that sustained for its pains repeated closures and repeated official censorship. The Mail‘s problem is that, stubbornly faithful to its principles, it has continued administering the lash to the grandees of the new order; and done so in a country where otherwise the press has been pitiably afraid to offend. Many people think that, by concentrating its attention on the Mail, the commission is carrying out a hidden government agenda to cow the press generally in the run-up the 1999 elections.

Whereas to accuse the Mail of racism is outrageous, racist attitudes among white people generally look destined to linger until the Kingdom of Heaven descends to earth. Mandela, who is nothing if not an idealist, believed for most of his life that, if he reached out to the white people on behalf of the blacks, they would respond in kind. He has fulfilled his part of the bargain in small, innumerable private moments and in large grandstand symbol-fests such as the rugby World Cup final of 1995.

The euphoria of racial unity that marked that amazing event lasted a few days and then it was back to business as usual, back to the daily terror of crime, back to the thinly veiled racist disparagements of the country’s new rulers, back to the everyday realities of a society where it is still customary for the white boss to expect maids and gardeners to address him as “master”.

Mandela believes that the whites have betrayed him and that is why he has lately come out with some intemperate remarks about whites. You might say he has a point when he accuses the thousands of whites who have emigrated – and the millions who would, if they could – of being “traitors” and “cowards”. But it is not good nation-building politics. And it is a far cry from the song he sang until quite recently.

The saint’s patience has been tried and tried and, in the end, found wanting. Taking their cue from Mandela’s entirely human exasperation, those in government who will follow him are displaying every inclination to use the race card, no matter the broader consequences for the nation, when they judge their power interests to be under threat. Mandela’s South Africa burst on to the world as a great human experiment, the objective of which would be finally to come up with a solution to the eternal problem of race. So far, there is little cause to believe a cure will be found.

John Carlin, a correspondent in South Africa and America for the “Independent”, now writes for the Spanish newspaper “El Pais”

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