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Integration in South Africa — How’s it Going?

Spring / Summer 2010 Query

Integration in South Africa — How’s it Going?

FIFA World Cup notwithstanding, the answer for now seems to be “not so well”

In 2010, while it remains an issue of critical importance, racial integration in South Africa has no empirical reference point. This is partly a function of the fact that, in 2009, President Jacob Zuma refused to entertain the idea of a national debate on race, but more generally a function of the countrywide fatigue that has set in around dialogue on the issue: South Africans have been talking about race for so long, it seems, that their will to continue the conversation has flagged.

Ten years ago, a South African non-profit organization called the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation submitted a report to the National Conference on Racism, which was held over three fraught days in the upmarket Johannesburg enclave of Sandton. For its time, the report offered a number of revealing observations; some were reasons for optimism, some less so. It noted, for example, that 58 percent of South Africans, including a majority of white respondents, opposed segregating their communities and schools. It noted that, while a large majority of black South Africans supported affirmative action, a large majority of whites opposed the policy. It noted, too, that there was no evidence that racial animosity was on the rise in the country.

Today, these observations seem almost quaint: they point to a moment when, in democratic terms, South Africa was still a small child – a first-year school pupil filled with possibility and hope. A decade later, as a teenager, the country is more fully formed. Apartheid has receded further into the past, and the question of ‘segregation’ is no longer on the agenda – even if economic segregation, with blacks confined to the poorer areas, remains an everyday reality. ‘Affirmative action’ is a fact of life, an item on every job advertisement – even if white South Africans, on average, are six times more likely to land a job. And ‘racial animosity’ simply is not a question anymore in important national surveys – even if recent events, having made global headlines, would seem to suggest that it very much should be.

In March 2010, Julius Malema, the leader of the powerful Youth League of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), resurrected a chant that had not been heard in the country since the heady days of 1993, when it seemed as if South Africa might descend into all-out race war. The chant, in vernacular, goes “dubul’ ibhunu” – it means, “Kill the Boer.” Originally part of an old apartheid-era liberation song, the ANC defended Malema’s right to sing it, arguing that it was part of the movement’s heritage, and was, in any event, a metaphor – that is, the words did not literally mean, said ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, that black people should go out and kill white people.

But then a few weeks after Malema began singing the song, just as Afrikaans activist group AfriForum brought its fears in petition form to the ANC headquarters, a Boer was killed. His name was Eugene Terre’Blanche, and while he may have been only one of 50 people murdered that Saturday in April (South Africa’s national average being around 50 murders a day), his death was important because he was the self-styled King Boer – the leader of the white supremacist organization known as the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, or the AWB.

At Terre’Blanche’s funeral, the symbols of institutionalized white South African racism were hauled out. There were the flags of the old Boer republics, the Swastika-like three-hooked flags of the AWB, the flags of the South African state when it was under National Party rule. There was even, affixed to the arm of a bearded Boer in khaki regalia, the Swastika itself. To kick off the service, a crowd of about 10,000 sang “Die Stem,” the apartheid national anthem. Affixed to fences outside the church grounds were crude signs calling for retaliation against Malema and stereotyping black South Africans in the vilest possible terms.

Would such events happen in a country that was apparently moving towards racial harmony? The answer, on one level, is obviously no. On another level, these sentiments exist – as in the Middle East, or parts of Europe, or anywhere else where ancient racial tensions tend to simmer – mainly on the fringes. It is the extremes in South African political life that fan the flames of racial hatred. The question, as always, is whether the rational middle will hold.

The FIFA World Cup, although it will bring no benefit to the legions of poor who live on the bread line in South Africa, may just buttress this rational middle. Hardly anybody in the country seriously believes that FIFA will deliver on its promises of African development – for there are just too many stories of World Cup corruption in the press. Still, South Africans are quietly hoping that the tournament will increase their ‘happiness index.’

On the streets of the major cities right now, the new South African flags are out; those wonderful multi-coloured things that remind South Africans of forgotten metaphors like ‘rainbow nation’ and ‘miracle country.’ The 1995 Rugby World Cup showed South Africans an alternative vision of their future – one where black and white could celebrate in the streets together. There is some modest hope that the FIFA World Cup will do the same.


Kevin Bloom is the author of Ways of Staying (2010), a narrative non-fiction journey through contemporary South Africa.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press)

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