Racial divide lives on in rural South Africa

Blacks now have their own homes and greater freedom, but fear, distrust remains on both sides

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am

On the edge of the rural town of Ventersdorp, poor blacks have been moving into a line of new tin shacks across the road from an affluent white enclave. Now, the whites are taking action. "For sale" signs are posted on many of their large brick houses.

"The white people are running away," said Sara Letsie, who moved into her shack two months ago. "They don't want to be our neighbours."

Lea Victor is one of the few whites remaining in the neighbourhood. "They are afraid of the blacks on the other side," she said, pointing one by one towards five of her neighbours' houses. "All of them are selling. They have started to take their stuff out."

When Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994, one of his biggest challenges was bringing his ideals of reconciliation, tolerance and forgiveness to hundreds of conservative, white-run towns.

In rural areas, where 40 per cent of the country's population lives, the apartheid system of racial segregation was deeply entrenched, more so than anywhere else in the nation.

Mandela leaves behind a rural landscape where the lives of many blacks have improved. Political power is in their hands.

A race war between blacks and whites, predicted by many during the transition from white rule, never erupted. Whites have not fled in huge numbers.

But racial equality remains elusive in Ventersdorp and other rural areas.

"There are people who still don't want to accept the change, even today," said Velaphi Qankase, 39, a town official with the ruling African National Congress party. "Us blacks, we are the victims. But we accept the change. But the people who oppressed you before, when you call for peace, it becomes difficult when they don't accept that."

Ventersdorp became notorious for being the headquarters of the white extremist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, known by its acronym AWB in the Afrikaans language. In the 1980s and 1990s, the neo-Nazi paramilitary group organised large rallies against reforms in apartheid laws.

It assaulted blacks and liberal whites, staged assassinations and forced blacks from their homes in nearby Tshing township, built during apartheid to house blacks serving Ventersdorp's whites.

The AWB still maintains its headquarters in Ventersdorp. But the movement has become fractured, and its membership has declined.

Today, blacks live in town and are free to eat and drink anywhere, and they go to school with whites. But as in most parts of the country, whites still dominate the local economy.

The white community is a meld of liberal and conservative Afrikaners, many of whom mourned the death of Mandela.

Blacks say they no longer fear attacks or evictions by extremists. But many still do not enjoy, or cannot afford, the same privileges as whites.

A private primary school, the town's best, is all-white because few blacks can afford the fees. Only two of the 65 members of the Golf Club are black. And blacks say whites still move to the front of the queue in stores. Blacks and whites say they never socialise with each other. At restaurants, it is rare to see people of different races sitting together.

That is true in other South African towns and cities as well. Fewer than 40 per cent of South Africans interact socially with people of another race, according to the SA Reconciliation Barometer, a public-opinion poll on race, political and social relations.

"I have no white friends," said Tommy Lerefolo, a black municipal official.

Many blacks still depend on whites for jobs in Ventersdorp. But black residents and community leaders say many have been fired and evicted from white-owned farms. White community leaders deny that. "We don't employ a lot of blacks anyway. Because they steal," said pastor Francois De Bruin.

ANC officials are still struggling to redress the inequalities of apartheid. In Tshing, electricity, clean water and other basic services have improved. A few thousand houses have been built, but more are needed. Officials plan to relocate more than 1,100 families to the edge of Ventersdorp, in essence joining it with Tshing.

Whites have objected to the proposal, and some have expressed concern that with Mandela dead, blacks will attack them. In some parts of town, white residents said they had seen a video, circulated by a conservative church in recent months, that warned that blacks would rise up to slay whites after Mandela's death, fanning fears.

"The blacks are going to cause problems now," said Steven Naude, 25. "If you got money, they will try to attack you. We don't know what is going on in the heads of blacks."

ANC officials described such attitudes as paranoia.