A rainbow still out of reach

September 8, 2000

More affirmative action is needed if South Africa is to approach Mandela's vision of society, David Jobbins writes

If South Africa's tiny political opposition is to be believed, Thabo Mbeki is replacing Nelson Mandela's rainbow nation with his vision of an African renaissance.

Last week in Johannesburg, on the eve of a national conference on racism, the language was of division rather than harmony. The question was who was speaking divisively and who was seeking to resolve latent conflict.

The president certainly described a country divided between poor and black, and white and prosperous. Six years on from the first democratic elections and a year after winning a near-two-thirds majority, African National Council leaders are aware of the frustrations at the rate of change and believe a culture of "apartheid denial" among whites is stalling the process.

Using Mbeki's attack on opponents of affirmative action who accuse the government of reverse racism, his critics effectively hijacked a national conference on racism to accuse the president of tearing up the vision of a rainbow nation. But his intervention was warmly received by other commentators who saw an attempt at plain speaking required to jolt whites into recognising that racism is a reality. The rainbow and the renaissance are not after all incompatible.

The fusing of South Africa's peoples into a harmonious whole after the divisions of apartheid turns on the extent to which white South Africans bear the responsibility for the lasting effects on the majority population.

The need for affirmative action is not generally questioned, at least in principle. Labour laws requiring employers to strive towards a reflection of the country's demography are proving effective and the black middle class is growing by leaps and bounds in an economy that is at last showing evidence of growth. And there is discussion of a tax on companies and individuals that profited from the apartheid era.

But racism is at its worst outside employment, in the trivia of daily life catalogued in provincial newspapers: from petty rudeness in public places to senseless violence.

Although Mbeki's attack on sections of South African society engaged in apartheid denial was cast as divisive, less headline-grabbing analysis saw his outburst as a necessary step towards tackling a blight on the daily lives of many black South Africans.

At about the same time, delegates were reviewing the outcome of the Johannesburg conference, across the country in Durban, a master drummer from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo interrupted his performance to plead for harmony through enjoyment of diversity and respect for cultural heritages across racial boundaries. It sounded a little naive, given his obvious despair at the conflict in his own country. But, even if they had to work hard to approach the verve of the black performers, the sprinkling of white students playing with him in the African Music Project at the University of Natal may justify his optimism, at least for South Africa.

Down the road at Durban's Hilton Hotel, a largely black audience, who had listened attentively as a local band played transatlantic cocktail jazz, came to life when the musicians slipped easily into township jazz, so redolent of the resistance to apartheid.

The arts offer fertile ground for cultural exploration on equal terms. Destroying stereotypes in other fields is less easy and presents the critical challenge for South Africa's government in general and universities in particular.

The divisions of apartheid will haunt the country for decades: the concentration of non-whites in townships around the fringes of the cities while whites dominate the affluent suburbs. Crime dominates radio news bulletins but is almost invariably black on black, a legacy of poverty and desperation. Some black commentators say that racist incidents are increasing, and that the healing process epitomised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has not trickled down to modify the attitudes of resentful whites.

Above all the spectre of HIV/Aids stalks the black community and threatens the age groups on which the country's future depends. Estimates of the impact increase almost every week, but the already-frightening average - almost 20 per cent - masks pockets of severe levels of infection, for example, up to a third of the adult population in parts of rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Higher education is not immune from the legacy - the traditionally black universities were a device by the apartheid government to show the benefits of separate development. The government's solution is now expected later this autumn and the fate of the increasingly unviable black universities is the key. The growing black middle class is sending its children to the traditionally white and even Afrikaans universities rather than the remoter rural institutions. But many of the black universities, such as Fort Hare, have a special place in the history of the struggle and closure is not an option.

Mergers are already under way - for example between Natal and Sultan technikons in Durban - and that route, foreshadowed in this summer's consultation document, is likely to be favoured by the ministry. The critical issue is time. An extended programme of bilateral negotiations stretching over two to three years is not an option for the minister, who wants speedier results.

Education holds the key to empowering the black majority economically and socially, and the HIV/Aids pandemic will increase demand for skilled professionals. With problems of such magnitude facing the country, the last thing it needs is a diversion into fighting the apartheid battles all over again.

David Jobbins is foreign editor of The THES.

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