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 VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Kurdish service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs