How race relations in the 'rainbow nation' have become toxic | 2018-12-18

How race relations in the 'rainbow nation' have become toxic


18th December, 2018 01:27:50 printer

How race relations in the 'rainbow nation' have become toxic


BBC Africa editor Fergal Keane visits South Africa's conservative rural areas nearly 25 years after white-minority rule ended, and finds that racism is still deeply embedded but there are also symbols of racial reconciliation.


It was a young boy who noticed us and ran to tell his father. Around 10 years old, blond haired and barefoot, he rushed indoors. The child looked scared. It was dusk and we were strangers.


I caught sight of him in the rear-view mirror as we drove along the dirt road that ran past the tall steel fence that encircled their home.


Maybe 10 minutes later a car approached from behind. Headlights flashed beckoning us to stop.


Revolver on hip


We pulled up within a few yards of each other. It was an old car, a Toyota from the 1990s. Beaten and rusted, it is a vehicle of the rural poor.


A young white man got out. He wore a baseball cap pulled down over his forehead and his right hand sat on the revolver strapped to his hip.


There was a young woman with a baby on her lap in the front seat. She looked exhausted, her hair lank and eyes struggling to stay open. The child was ill, coughing and its face covered in red blotches.


I saw the man relax as I got out of the car and approached him. I greeted him in Afrikaans. The hand came away from his hip.


"You frightened them you know," he said, pointing towards the house.


"They called up on the radio and we came to check on you. They didn't know who you was. We talk to each other on the radio."


He said there had been farm attacks in the area. There was constant theft.


The young man pointed across the railway tracks to where the fields were now dissolving into the dark.


"The farmer over there, if he sees anyone on his land he is likely to just take a shot. He will fire at anything. Be more careful man," he said.


'We will level them with the gravel'


This was near Potchefstroom on the "platteland" - an Afrikaans word which refers to the great rolling heartland encompassing vast swathes of the South African interior.


More than 20 years after watching black and white leaders negotiate an end to the racist system of apartheid I was driving west of the main city, Johannesburg, to test how much had changed in what had been the most conservative part of South Africa.


Potchefstroom, Ventersdorp, Fochville and numerous other towns and villages had provided the muscle for an abortive right-wing rebellion.


The leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), Eugene Terreblanche, had sworn never to surrender to black rule.


"We will level them with the gravel," I'd heard him declare one hot afternoon in Ventersdorp. There were threats to set up white republics.


But the rebellion failed, snuffed out when a black soldier killed three AWB members in cold blood on a rural road and terrified the rest into going home and living with the new dispensation.


This was after AWB members shot civilians in and around the platteland town of Mafeking in March 1994.


Resenting inequality


Terreblanche was murdered 16 years later by one of his own workers. His movement splintered, shrank and became irrelevant.


Most Afrikaners accepted the compromise which led to black majority rule.


But travelling across the platteland it is obvious that while dreams of white secession have evaporated there is much that is unchanged.


I was going back to a place where many black people resent the inequality which keeps 67% of arable farmland in white hands, and where white people fear violent attack and dispossession.


It is not that South Africa has become newly racist, unequal or violent. It was always all of these things.


The violence of racial discrimination and the resentment it bred are part of the nation's DNA.


'Beaten unconscious'


Social media has provided an outlet for amplifying the crudest racial slurs and anger over corruption and inequality have stoked an increasingly febrile environment.


What is striking is the way in which racial resentment can still be so brutally expressed.


Last February a 22-year-old black athlete, Thabang Mosiako, was walking with some friends in Potchefstroom when he saw a shop assistant being insulted by a group of young white men.


It was a Saturday night. When Mr Mosiako and a friend intervened they were set upon.


"They were hitting me until I was unconscious," he remembered. "Then I woke up in the hospital, not knowing what happened."


His friend, also an athlete, suffered a broken arm. Mr Mosiako runs for South Africa and lost three months from his training because of the beating he received.


Worse, he says, is the lingering trauma and fear when he sees groups of white men.


"I feel really scared. I can't even go to town alone. I don't know when and where will they come back again."


'Alcohol thrown'


Travel 300km (186 miles) north-east to the town of Middelburg and you learn that racist violence can still be lethal. The town has some bad history.


In August 2016 two white farmers were filmed beating and then forcing a black man into a coffin in which they told him he would be buried alive. They were given sentences of 11 and 14 years.


In another case, Xolisile Ndongzana, 26, was driving home in Middleburg one night last July when he found the road blocked by a group of white men.


They approached the car and threw alcohol through the open window drenching the occupants. Mr Ndongzana was dragged out. His friend, Laurence Nelumoni, witnessed the violence.


"They pulled out my friend and beat him. When I tried to save him it was too late. They used all these 'k-words' - black, kaffir, everything. It was terrible."


The "k-word" was the most offensive racial slur used to humiliate black people during the apartheid years. It is a symbol of de-humanisation.


Mr Ndongzana died of his injuries. The white attackers have yet to be charged.


Mr Nelumoni is rueful when I ask if those who witnessed the end of apartheid were wrong to believe in a "rainbow nation" - the multiracial patchwork of peaceful co-operating groups.


"You were wrong. It's not a rainbow nation. Whites still have more powers."