On April 27, 1994, the unimaginable happened in South Africa: South Africans of all races voted together in national elections, toppling 48 years of oppressive white minority rule. There was no euphoria among whites. Expecting a bloodbath once Blacks were in power, they had stocked up on food, fuel and water.
Ten years later, a nation that was racked by fear and racial violence, where thousands disappeared into detention, is no more. South Africa, says government spokesman Joel Netshitenzhe, has become a “stable, boring democracy.”
Indeed it has. The country has one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. Hundreds of laws that treated Blacks as second-class and even denied them South African citizenship are gone. All-race elections have been held twice since 1994. The government has built 1.6 million houses, brought clean water to an additional 9 million people and now delivers electricity to 70 percent of homes. Public schools are desegregated and millions of children get free health care. The ruling African National Congress, once socialist, has revived an ailing economy by controlling spending, reducing debt and lifting trade barriers.
The country still faces significant challenges. There’s widespread poverty, high unemployment and crime, and a devastating AIDS epidemic. Whites, though just 10 percent of the population, remain far better off than most of the impoverished Black majority.
And for many Afrikaners, many of whom had come to believe that it was their God-given right to rule South Africa, the new “rainbow nation” is worrisome, says Associated Press writer Alexandra Zavis. Reporting from Pretoria, Zavis says many of them feel marginalized. “They feel there is a risk of white South Africans being relegated to a sort of second-class citizenship,” F. W. de Klerk, the last white president, told AP. They complain that their language is disappearing from schools, courts and government offices, and they feel threatened by affirmative action policies for Blacks.
Their fortunes have changed indeed, Zavis reports. Afrikaner nationalism, the political movement that had united Afrikaners against British hegemony, has rapidly disintegrated. The renamed New National Party won less than 2 percent of the vote in the April elections that gave President Thabo Mbeki a second term. The Dutch Reformed Church, whose teachings once enshrined white supremacy, is losing members. Militant white separatists have become a source of ridicule, including the “Boeremag,” or Farmer’s Force, faction, accused of plotting a coup and deportation of the entire Black population.
Descendants of 17th century Dutch and French settlers, Afrikaners constitute 59 percent of South Africa’s 4.3 million whites but only 5.6 percent of the overall population of 45 million. Afrikaans once was one of two official languages. Now it is one of 11. Afrikaans-speaking schools and universities have had to integrate students who don’t speak the language or identify with the culture. Some streets and cities honoring Afrikaner heroes have been renamed after Black leaders, and new public holidays have replaced those honoring Afrikaner history.
Young Afrikaners, once guaranteed employment by virtue of their ethnicity, are especially frustrated. “I never had anything to do with the apartheid government. I never voted for them,” protested Cornelius van Rensburg, a 21-year-old student leader at the University of Pretoria, in the Afrikaner heartland. “I don’t want to take the sunshine away from anybody, but what we are saying is grant us some sunshine as well,” Zavis quotes him as saying.
Some Afrikaners have retreated to parties seeking to protect minority rights. Others have thrown their lot in with the majority. But for all the griping, Zavis says, Afrikaans culture seems far from dead. Rather, it has thrown off its apartheid trappings and become the vehicle for a new kind of rock music and literature, shared by whites and millions of South Africans of Asian and mixed-race descent.
And whatever happened to former president P.W. “Old Crocodile” Botha, who presided over some of apartheid’s worst atrocities? Botha, 88, refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing and to testify before the Truth Commission. He suffered a stroke and has isolated himself on a farm in the Western Cape.
Eugene “Prime Evil” De Kock, the former police colonel who headed a unit that tortured and assassinated anti-apartheid activists, admitted to more than 100 incidents of murder, torture and fraud and is in jail for life.
On Tuesday, April 27, I celebrated South Africa’s 10 years of freedom at New York City’s trendy nightclub, Crobar. Not since my visit to South Africa had I seen so many white South Africans. As they belted out the words to the South African national anthem—in Xhosa and Zulu, no less—I thought how lucky they are that the bloodbath never came.