Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Apartheid Unvanquished

By David G. Young

Yogyakarta, Indonesia, March 11, 2001 --  

Seven years after the end of apartheid, one of the most shocking observations a visitor sees in South Africa is continued near total separation of blacks and whites. As a tourist, it is possible to visit the major sights while interacting only with the country's American-cultured white elite, seeing black South Africans only in menial background roles.

With the end of the pass laws that kept the races separated, South Africa's central cities have attracted large numbers of middle and working class blacks, and whites have retreated to the suburbs, increasingly paranoid of South Africa's terrible crime problem. South Africa must be the world's largest market for razor wire -- buildings inhabited by whites have become compounds, surrounded by electric fences and warning of "immediate armed response."

Whites have erected semi-public compounds to continue apartheid outside the residential sphere. Cape Town's waterfront mall development, for example, is like many white establishments in that it posts a "Right of Admission Reserved" sign. Shockingly few of the customers are black.

It would be easy for Americans to identify similar cases in their contemporary society. But this would be a mistake. America's society is about 10 percent black. South Africa's is less than 10 percent white. Parallels in race relations between South Africa and the United States are hard to find, and comparisons are often not useful. I remember interviewing an assistant U.S. Secretary of State for South African Affairs as a student journalist in the late 1980s. He made a forceful point to educate Americans about the Apartheid struggle. "Most people think South Africa is like the United States in 1965," he said. "It's like the U.S. in 1865."

But South Africa's racial problems are not at all like those in the United States -- not in 1865 or any other year. The black Africans who live in the country usually only speak a bit of English as their second tongue. They often live far removed from white society, many of them in traditional ways that make them economically and culturally distinct from the rest of the country.

It is often said that South Africa is two countires in one -- a first world country with an American-style culture for the whites, and a third world country for the blacks. A similar analysis, however, could be given for other middle income countries. Brazil, for example, has millions of people equally rich as white South Africans living modern first world lifestyles, and millions more as poor as the poorest South African blacks. The distinctions in South Africa, however, are much, much more clear cut, made forcedly so by decates of Aparthied policies. In Brazil, people of different races and classes mix. In South Africa, they do not.

There is a good deal of trauma being felt by South Africa's whites just as life improves markedly for the relatively few blacks lucky enough to live on the margins of its modern society. If South Africa is to succeed, this trauma will have to be managed by a liberal-minded government commited to all sectors of society. After years of terrible behavior by the Aparthied government and many white residents, this will be difficult to do. If this is not possible, white residents who currently have the knowledge to run the economy will emigrate in even greater numbers, leaving South Africa in a continual state of decline like Zimbabwe has been for the past 20 years.

If South Africa is to succeed, it must first start to look a lot more like Brazil, and a lot less like an America coexisting with a third world country. Such an idea is certainly offensive to the white residents of the country. In this fact lies the greatest risk to the future of all South Africans.