Goodbye, faded rainbow

Two years ago the Nelson Mandela Foundation had to issue a statement dismissing as unfounded a rumour that white people would be killed when Nelson Mandela dies.

The rumour carried no details about who would carry out the killings, or how, or when, or why. Given the road the country has travelled since 1994 on the issue of race, it came as a shock that whites could still fear being driven into the sea in 2007.

Nelson Mandela and Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, in 1995 after meeting in Orania near Kimberley. (Juda Ngwenya, Reuters)

Just before the turn of the millennium, the country was still in the thrall of Mandela’s inspired message of unity and reconciliation after his inauguration in 1994.
By now we should be celebrating the progress we’ve made since then. But are we? Have we protected Nelson Mandela’s legacy of non-racialism and the rainbow nation that Archbishop Desmond Tutu bequeathed us?

And who should be doing that? Civil society? President Jacob Zuma? Opposition leader Helen Zille? Or should we leave all race-related matters to those who best know how to play the race card: ANC Youth League president Julius Malema or the arch-racist who found his voice again this year, AWB leader Eugène Terre’Blanche?

We may not have completely abandoned non-racialism, but someone asked the other day: when was the last time the president of the country actually called on black people not to abuse their status as the new governing elite the way Mandela did in the 1990s?

In an interview with the Sunday Times in 1995 Mandela condemned arrogant members of the African majority who suggested that minority groups have no role to play in South Africa.

“Some Africans themselves have made mistakes. They now throw their weight about as a majority. There are some Africans who inspire fear in the minorities because of the way they behave.”

These and many other gestures towards white people made Mandela unpopular among some black South Africans who felt he was bending over backwards to accommodate whites. Whites who, it was argued, were not reciprocating by reaching out to black South Africans who were victims of apartheid.

Other Mandela gestures in this vein included having tea with Betsie, the widow of apartheid mastermind Hendrik Verwoerd. Mandela also went out of his way to embrace an unrepentant PW Botha, even though Botha refused to embrace the new South Africa.

By going out of his way for national unity and reconciliation, Mandela had inadvertently created a platform for any successor who wanted to style himself differently to seize on dissatisfaction around this issue.

Although it was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek comment, when Thabo Mbeki took over from Mandela at the ANC conference in Mafikeng in 1997, he made it clear that he was going to do things differently.

Mbeki famously remarked that he did not want to step into Mandela’s big shoes - because they were too ugly.

And indeed Mbeki was to be his own man - in a manner that suggested that while he believed in non-racialism in principle, he was not going to indulge in Madiba-style symbolic gestures towards whites. He was going to knuckle down to the business of running government and concentrate on getting black people out of poverty.

Although his famous “I am an African” speech was a strong assertion of his identity, it also acknowledged other minorities’ right to exist in the country.

“I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me,” he said.

But Mbeki would actively question whether white people had overcome racism and were ready to take a leap towards Tutu’s rainbow nation.

Mbeki wrote that intense international scrutiny of Zimbabwe could be put down to kith and kin - white people who were concerned about President Robert Mugabe’s white victims.

“A million people die in Rwanda and do the white South Africans care? Not a bit. You talk to them about the disaster in Angola, to which the apartheid regime contributed, and they are not interested. Let’s talk about Zimbabwe.

“Does anyone want to talk about the big disaster in Mozambique, from which it is now recovering? No, let’s talk about Zimbabwe. You say to them - look what’s happening in the Congo. No, no, no, let’s talk about Zimbabwe. Why? Its because 12 white people died!” he said during an interview with Allister Sparks.

‘I will not keep quiet’
On the Aids issue he accused whites of believing that black people were sexual miscreants.

“I for my part will not keep quiet while others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism accuse us, the black people of South Africa, of Africa and the world, as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour, lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage and rapist,” he said in Parliament in 2004.

Playing the race card? Jacob Zuma greets Kazandra Nel at a settlement for poor whites in Pretoria last April. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

Among black people Mbeki came to be regarded as an Africanist who occupied the space previously inhabited by the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. But this did not mean, correspondingly, that his popularity among black people increased.

On Zimbabwe his belief found an echo among other African liberation fighters, but Aids was a far more complex issue, affecting at least five million South Africans, mostly ­poverty-stricken blacks.

But if South Africans were worried about a president who had essentially undone Mandela’s reconciliation legacy, this was nothing compared with the fear of the ascendance of a man who had just escaped a rape conviction and faced fraud and corruption charges.

Jacob Zuma had been fired from government for his association with a convicted fraudster who used his name to secure himself multimillion-rand contracts.

Anxiety about Zuma was not just about his controversial past, it was also about his association with a motley crew of communists, radical trade union leaders and some young people who threatened violence if he did not become president.

Zuma has since modelled himself as a Mandela and he spent substantial time before he was elected meeting Jewish, Indian and Hellenic minorities, as well as international investors, to soothe their fears about radical economic policy changes.

In the months leading up to the elections, Zuma spent time cosying up to the Afrikaners as well.

He went to an informal settlement outside Pretoria where he pronounced himself “shocked” by the levels of poverty among poor Afrikaners. He also met representatives of Afrikaner groups in Johannesburg where he made the controversial statement that “of all the whites in South Africa, it is only the Afrikaners who are truly South Africans in the true sense of the word”.

In all these meetings Zuma was warmly received.

In what could only enhance his non-racialist credentials, Zuma was also criticised by the ANC Youth League for having filled crucial economic posts in Cabinet with minorities and creating the impression that Africans were not ready for these positions.

But, while he sends out some positive messages by wearing the Springbok jersey and talking tough to Mugabe, Zuma also sends shivers down minorities’ spines when he endorses Malema as a future president of the ANC (therefore, presumably, as president of the country).

Malema routinely rubbishes whites as unpatriotic and has become a controversial, loathed figure.

As 2009 draws to a close, Zuma has been in office for seven months. So far he has been socialist to the SACP, workerist to Cosatu, Africanist to Malema, friendly to investors and accommodating to minorities.

From a minority perspective, he is seen as being capable of restoring Madiba’s legacy if you look at a TNS survey that showed a surge in his popularity in November (58% from a low of 40% pre-election).
But until the real Zuma stands up, let’s hold our breath.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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