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Will South Africa Ever Rise Above Race?

  • Anita Powell

FILE - People attend 20-year Democracy Anniversary celebrations near to the government's Union Building, background, in Pretoria, South Africa, Sunday, April 27, 2014.

FILE - People attend 20-year Democracy Anniversary celebrations near to the government's Union Building, background, in Pretoria, South Africa, Sunday, April 27, 2014.

Going by social media alone, one might think a race war is erupting anew in South Africa.

A slew of racist incidents in recent months has captivated the Rainbow Nation, more than 20 years after the end of the racist apartheid regime.

Every week, it seems, another scandal hits the headlines and airwaves. And the offense, it appears, is equal opportunity; from the white judge who recently said that black South Africans condone rape, to the black activist who reduced a white waitress to tears by telling her he would only tip her "when you return the land."

Racial insults have even been heard in parliament, with members of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party insulting both white and black MPs, calling one a “white boy” and taunting one black legislator to ”speak like a black man.”

Young democracy

Such moves have worried those who are watching this young democracy as it hurtles toward elections later this year.

The nation’s economy remains deeply divided along racial lines, with white South Africans disproportionately represented among the rich and black South Africans among the poor, a fact that has spurred anger and, sometimes, racist outbursts.

“Two decades into our new democracy, it feels as though we are drifting apart,” said opposition party leader Mmusi Maimane in a speech on race he delivered earlier this year. “Part of the problem is that we – as black South Africans – are still made to feel inferior because of the color of our skin. And this inferiority complex runs deep.”

Why isn’t the Rainbow Nation over race?

Professor Jonathan Jansen laughs when asked why South Africa is still struggling with race. He says he hears this a lot.

'Experience (racism) regularly'

“I experience (racism) regularly,” Jansen told VOA during a recent sit-down in Johannesburg. “So why are you surprised?”

Jansen is a well-known crusader against South Africa’s race troubles, and he made national news when he announced this week he would be leaving the country for a post in the United States

Jansen made history when he took over as the first black head of the historically white University of the Free State in 2009. At the time the university was mired in an international scandal, after four white students videotaped themselves humiliating five black university workers in 2007.

“When I saw what had happened, I really thought that was the end of the University of the Free State,” he said. “... And then I thought, this would be a great job for me.”

Jansen has been credited with defusing the tense situation by welcoming back those white students and fostering reconciliation. Dialogue and forgiveness, he says, are essential to move forward.


However, Jansen said on his campus of 32,000 students and in the ephemeral world of social media, for every few steps forward, there is an occasional step back. That backlash often comes from frustrated members of a vocal minority who feel left out, which he says Americans know.

“Every now and again there’s a backlash,” he said. “But it’s not the whole story. And the same is true in the United States. Barack Obama’s presidency, across the world, was inspirational to us as black people, but there will be a backlash, and you see it in your country right now.”

Is there gold at the end of the rainbow? Maybe.

Jansen said he believes things are improving slowly. He believes South Africa’s recent race disputes captured attention because of the ubiquity of social media, not because South African society has skewed in a more racist direction.

“I think the real interesting thing for me is there haven’t been more incidents” on the Free State campus, he said.

“So every now and and then there would be a confrontation and we have to deal with that. And the test of that is not whether we’re incident-free. The test of the change is whether when it happens, the majority of students don’t retribalize, as we call it ... and that hasn’t happened at our university, except on the margins," Jansen said.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni agrees that while South Africa has improved since the days of apartheid, the nation has yet to fully confront its tragic past and the inequality that has resulted from it.

“We did not say we are striving to be a Rainbow Nation; we said that we are now a Rainbow Nation,” he said. “It's like going to a football match and saying that you've already won, so there's no need to perform.”