South Africa is doing just fine on race relations, though threats await - Business Day 5 May 2014

As Freedom Day and this week's election approached, a number of foreign journalists asked me how South Africa was doing on the race relations front. My answer: "There are threats down the road arising from racial laws, but so far, very nicely, thank you."

By John Kane-Berman

Some of them seemed surprised. After all the horrors of apartheid, how was it possible that in only 20 years the process of what some of them termed "racial healing" had not gone awry? It's a fair question, and the answer is not straightforward.

But part of it is that apartheid ended not with the bang many foretold, but with a whimper. Desegregation of workplaces, schools, universities, restaurants, suburbs, and elsewhere actually started 20 years before the release of Nelson Mandela and the adoption of the first post-apartheid constitution four years later.

The constitutional negotiations at the World Trade Centre were  the logical extension into the political realm of the social and economic desegregation that was already unstoppable and irreversible.

After all, the trade union rights that had for decades been the exclusive privilege of white, coloured, and Indian workers had been extended to Africans as far back as 1979. This was a change that the white trade union movement feared, but which in the end it accepted as inevitable. White workers indeed surrendered privileges that in the 1920s they'd staged a violent revolt to defend.

That so vast a quantity of segregationist legislation was imposed on the country by the National Party (NP) after 1948 was itself a kind of testimony to how artificial the whole system was. When the NP legislated in 1959 to impose apartheid on the "open" universities, Dr HF Verwoerd, then minister of "native" affairs, said, "We do not want Europeans to become so accustomed to the natives that they feel there is no difference between them and the natives."

Of course, apartheid went far beyond segregation. Segregation was merely one of the means to the real objective, which was white minority rule. Moreover, one has only to re-read some of the statements by NP politicians in the 1960s to realise that they thought white minority rule could go on indefinitely. And they passed plenty of laws to stamp out opposition to that vision.

This makes the transition from minority to majority rule only a few decades later one of the most remarkable events in global political history. Both black and white leadership made this possible, but it could never have happened without grassroots support, including white acquiescence in their own political abdication. Nor would such acquiescence have been possible without reassuring and statesmanlike black leadership, not only then but also in earlier years.

Xenophobic currents in many European countries make the transition in South Africa more remarkable yet. Some of these countries once ran colonies in Africa and elsewhere; despite that, they were happy to preach to South Africa on racial policy. No doubt our problems looked simple from 6 000 miles away.

Now some of these very countries are finding it difficult to adjust to what many of their citizens regard as alien ethnic or religious minorities in their midst.

South Africa also looks pretty good in relation to the United States. That country of course had to fight a civil war costing 620 000 lives before it abolished slavery. Despite that, it took another century before the US passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act to get rid of its own apartheid in the form of voting rights and Jim-Crow segregation. Moreover, all that the Americans had to do was to accord equal rights to their black minority. Yet only 30 years later - a trivial amount of time in history - South Africa's white minority handed over political power to the black majority at the Union Buildings on 10th May 1994, whose 20th anniversary is less than a week from today.

* Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations

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