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Two decades after apartheid ended, racial tensions rattling South Africa

Zelda la Grange, a former assistant to Nelson Mandela, said in a tweet that President Jacob Zuma ‘brutalized’ whites.


Zelda la Grange was the poster child for the "rainbow nation." She was the blonde Afrikaner girl who grew up in a racist pro-apartheid family – and famously became the assistant to Nelson Mandela, who taught her the power of racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

But today, after a shocking outburst on Twitter about how "whites" aren't welcome in South Africa any more, Ms. la Grange has become a symbol of something more disturbing: the growing racial tensions in a country that was once seen as a model of how to conquer official segregation.

Twenty years after the death of apartheid, there are signs that racism is mounting a comeback – if it ever went away. In Cape Town, there are widespread reports that some restaurants and landlords discriminate against blacks, refusing to let them book tables or rent houses. The prejudice has become so blatant that one resident has gone onto Facebook to post a list of non-discriminatory restaurants, so that blacks know where to take their business.

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In several notorious cases in comfortable middle-class suburbs, blacks were violently attacked by white residents who falsely accused them of being prostitutes or criminals. At least 16 such cases of racial violence have occurred recently in the Western Cape alone, according to one local court.

For their part, some whites see themselves as the victims of racial discrimination, because of South Africa's policies of affirmative action and black economic empowerment. Some claim they are victims of a "white genocide" because of the large number of murders of white farmers – although studies have found that the murders are mostly motivated by robbery, rather than racial hatred.

Some whites have even tried to rewrite history. One of the country's most famous Afrikaner singers, Steve Hofmeyr, triggered a storm of outrage recently when he tweeted that "blacks were the architects of apartheid."

Ms. la Grange stepped into this minefield last Saturday when she tweeted her anger at President Jacob Zuma, who had given a speech in which he said "all the trouble began" in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck arrived with the first Dutch settlers and founded the settlement that became Cape Town.

Ms. la Grange temporarily changed her Twitter handle to "Zelda van Riebeeck" and accused Mr. Zuma of having a "constant go at whites." She said the tax money of white taxpayers was "good enough" to finance Mr. Zuma's palatial village residence at Nkandla, yet he still "brutalized" whites. "Jacob Zuma made it clear whites are not welcome in SA," she tweeted, while warning that "white investors" would leave the country.

After much criticism on social media, Ms. la Grange issued a lengthy apology, but by then the damage was done. The secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress denounced Ms. la Grange of being a "spoilt white person" who was "sowing racial division."

It was Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who first proclaimed in 1994 that South Africa was the "rainbow nation" – an optimistic view of racial harmony in a country where 80 per cent of the population is black, 8 per cent is white, 9 per cent is mixed-race and 3 per cent, Asian.

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But racial tensions have worsened as South Africa falls into economic stagnation. Its economic growth, estimated at just 1.4 per cent last year, has been far too slow to reduce its chronically high unemployment rate – officially 25 per cent but in reality much higher. Many blacks, lacking job prospects in a country where whites are still privileged, blame racism for their plight. Many whites, seeing their privileges threatened by affirmative-action policies, feel racially persecuted despite their relative wealth.

The friction is also a result of a growing amnesia over the horrors of apartheid. After two decades of democracy, and after the death of Mr. Mandela himself in 2013, many whites seem to have forgotten the grim past. According to a study last month, only 53 per cent of white South Africans now say that apartheid was a crime against humanity, compared to 70 per cent a decade ago – and compared to 80 per cent of black South Africans.

The same study, by the South Africa-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, found a growing disillusionment with the notion of a united country, along with a rise in the importance of racial identity among South Africans.

Another survey last year, by two universities and a local government, found that an increasing number of South Africans – 73 per cent of blacks and 44 per cent of whites – believed that the country's blacks and whites will never trust each other.

The ANC, meanwhile, has an official policy of non-racialism, but it often plays the race card to attack the opposition. It routinely accuses the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, of being a party of "white racists."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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