JOHANNESBURG — The issue of race is rearing its head again as South Africa prepares for national elections next year. One new political party has made a point of verbally attacking the white minority population who benefited under the apartheid system. At the same time, a small group of white South Africans say their race is threatened with “genocide.” Analysts say that reckless racial sentiments are not productive and out of sync with today’s South Africa.
Nearly 20 years ago, South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, described his country as a “rainbow nation” at peace with itself. Mandela’s presidency ended the apartheid system in which non-whites were oppressed and treated as inferior to white South Africans.
However, the legacy of racism is still a reality in today’s South Africa. And two political movements have recently used race as a rallying cry ahead of the 2014 vote.
In early October, a group of white South Africans held a protest over what they described as “genocide” against South Africa’s white minority. The Red October group says white South Africans no longer feel safe because they are being targeted and killed on their farms and in their homes throughout the country.
The group estimates that at least 3,000 white South Africans have been killed in the past decade, largely in robbery-related incidents that they say are evidence of hate crimes.
But that figure pales in relation to national crime statistics. Over the last year alone, South African police documented more than 16,200 murders nationwide.
The economic factor
A new political party is also using race as a rallying cry. The newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters Party (EFF), headed by expelled African National Congress Youth League president, Julius Malema, is accusing white South Africans of pushing up crime levels by refusing to share the country’s wealth with the poor black majority.
Malema warned white South Africans who obtained land during the colonial period, to return it to the indigenous blacks, or forget about reconciliation.
“You are not ashamed for having stolen our land. You want us to come to you and kneel before you to ask for the land of our ancestors. We are not going to do that. We are not going to beg for our land,” said Malema.
Malema’s supporters seemed to take his message even further. One banner carried at his party launch rally read: “Honeymoon is over for whites.” Another said: “to be a revolutionary you have to be inspired by hatred and bloodshed.”
Helen Zille, the leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said she is not impressed by the racial mudslinging.
“I know there have been terrible farm murders and obviously they have been gruesome and terrible, and obviously we can condemn every single murder as we do. Conditions in many, many places, especially in informal settlements are very bad. But to try and turn it into a race mobilization issue is totally counter-productive and certainly doesn’t have my support,” said Zille.
Anthea Jeffery, Head of Special Research at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said that while racial tensions still exist, relations have actually improved over the years.
“There is obviously still a great deal of racial inequality within the country. There is of course the sense that to be black is to run a greater risk of being jobless and to be poor, and to be white is to have a much greater prospect of good jobs and income. The economic pinch is affecting everybody and the racial scapegoat is a very easy avenue for the country to follow,” said Jeffery.
She emphasized that the real issue is economic inequality, and that the government needs to do more on that front to keep tensions from spiraling out of control.
“What we really need to see, if South Africa is to get onto the right path, is an emphasis on growth. If we were to have investment and growth and jobs, it’s very important that there should be racial harmony, that there should be a sense of trust across the different population groups,” she said.
Jeffery and the South African Institute of Race Relations say their research suggests that the views of Red October and the EFF represent extremes in the political arena and that the race card is not likely to resonate with most South Africans when they go to vote next year.