News / Africa

Reporter's Notebook: South Africa Still Struggles With Racial Reconciliation

The shadows of a mother and child are cast on a shack in Marikana's Nkaneng township in Rustenburg, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, August 15, 2013.
The shadows of a mother and child are cast on a shack in Marikana's Nkaneng township in Rustenburg, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, August 15, 2013.
Chris Simkins
Nelson Mandela’s greatest legacy to South Africa was his belief in forgiveness and reconciliation among the racially divided population. But has South Africa truly reconciled?
I first learned about race in 1970, the year North Carolina de-segregated its schools. My first grade teacher interpreted this to mean that she should put the black children - including me - on one side of the class, and the white children on the other. My mother was outraged. She complained and demanded change. On the very next day, the issue was resolved and for the first time in my life I was sitting next to white students.  Just a few years later on the other side of the world, South African children who looked like me were being shot dead by police as they protested an unfair education system.

In 1993, I had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela, the man imprisoned for 27 years for fighting South Africa's racist regime and who emerged triumphantly to overturn the system. Visiting Washington, I asked Mandela about the South African government setting a date in 1994 for the country's first election in which citizens of all races were allowed to take part.

"That is a good thing for the forces of peace in our country because that is what we have been demanding all along," he said.

Less than nine months after that interview, I watched along with the rest of the world as South Africa was transformed, seemingly overnight, by those long lines of black voters, casting their ballots for the first time and electing a man who believed not in revenge and division, but in love and forgiveness.  
I have spent the last few decades examining race in the United States as a reporter for the Voice of America. Our shameful racial history is not that far in the past, and in my work I've found that deep racial divisions still remain in American society.
And so, I was curious upon my first visit to South Africa earlier this year to see how far this country has come with regard to race relations.

I was confronted with race the very moment I landed. Local news stations were covering a small group of white South Africans who were protesting. They claimed they were being discriminated against and were under threat of a "white genocide." They cited figures that some 3,000 whites have been killed in the last decade. Last year alone, South African police counted more than 16,000 murders countrywide.

Then I was off to Marikana, the dusty mining town where South African police shot dead 34 striking miners in 2012. A militant new political party led by firebrand Julius Malema was holding a rally. Malema believes that Mandela and his successors did not do enough to address economic inequality and raise the living standards for black South Africans. It is a message, and an angry one, that resonates with many young blacks. Here is what one of his supporters told me:
"We are calling on black people to wake up and realize that the economy of this country is still in the hands of the minority," he said.
In Cape Town, I met 40-year-old Tony Whittaker. He is what South Africans call “colored” - meaning he is of mixed race.

“Deep down I am still very angry at the injustices they did to us and they got away with it. Apartheid has been buried on paper, but in real life nothing has changed," he said. "We can vote, we can go to the beach, we don't have to stand at the back of the line to make room for white people anymore. But in present day South Africa the colored people are still ostracized."

I began to see that this is far from a black and white issue. If anything, it has become associated with a widening economic gap that is still aligned with race.

A recent study by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation found that class is now more important to many South Africans than race. However, researchers also found that South Africans at the very bottom of that scale are nearly all black. A chilling illustration of this is found in the most recent census: the average white household earns six times what the average black household does.
During my time here (in October 2013), I found myself worried by these trends. What hope can we have for a country like this, I wondered ? And then, seemingly overnight, something changed. Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 and sent the nation into celebration, mourning and reflection. The many colors of the Rainbow Nation again beamed around the world. I watched on television as tens of thousands of South Africans - black, white and in between - gathered to mourn him and to pay their respects beside his coffin. The emotions of reverence, sadness and pure love looked the same on every face. It made me hopeful. It made me optimistic.  

My first brush with racism was solved overnight. I, along with the rest of the world, wished the same for South Africa so many years ago, and I see now that was never possible. But today I have great hopes, and great love, for this Rainbow Nation.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs