JOHANNESBURG—As South Africa gets ready to host the soccer World Cup, race relations have reached a new low, creating fear of renewed violence among blacks and whites in the country.
White supremacists have vowed to retaliate after the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche, who was hacked to death earlier this month, allegedly by two black workers on his farm. Terre'Blanche, a former police officer whose name translates to White Earth, was the founder of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, a right-wing secessionist movement that seeks the establishment of an independent white homeland in South Africa.
The government has tried to keep tensions in check, wanting to avoid any more trouble before and during the World Cup. But this challenge goes well beyond soccer.
Although the murder doesn’t appear to have been racially motivated, Terre'Blanche’s followers have blamed Julius Malema, the president of the African National Congress Youth League, for instigating the murder by publicly and repeatedly chanting an apartheid-era protest song containing the words “kill the Boer.”
“All leaders must act responsibly and work with government to control emotions and anger during this period,” South African President Jacob Zuma said after the killing, and called on everyone to remain calm. As a columnist here pointed out: not even the 2002 terrorist bombings in Soweto by white supremacists caused such public panic.
With the eyes of the world trained on South Africa in advance of the World Cup in June, some worry the murder of Terre'Blanche, and the provocations by Malema, could ignite more serious trouble. The South African Institute of Race Relations said racial tensions appeared to have “increased significantly” in recent weeks. “The failure of sensible South Africans to take back the racial middle ground in the country will be serious,” the institute’s deputy head, Frans Cronje, said in a statement. “Polarization will beget further racial conflict and a hardening of attitudes on all sides. This is perhaps the greatest leadership test that the current government has faced and it is one that they cannot afford to fail.”
About 8,000 people turned out for Terre'Blanche’s funeral at Ventersdorp Afrikaner Protestant Church on April 9, and as I made my way through the crowd and saw the swastika-like insignia on their brown shirts and on their flags, I recalled how I felt almost 50 years ago, when I was admitted as the first black woman to attend the all-white University of Georgia. On my second night on campus an angry mob gathered outside my dormitory, yelling, “Kill the n***r.” In Ventersdorp, no one called me anything. But I felt unsafe, and other black journalists were hassled.
Many in the crowd refused to speak to me when I identified myself as an American reporter from NPR. But one elderly man, a retired pilot from South African Airways, said his attendance was intended as statement. “If only two or three of us had showed up, it would send the wrong message to the blacks,” he said, adding that he was not a member of Terre'Blanche’s movement. “I am an Afrikaner and I want to show that baboon Julius Malema.”
A few days before the funeral, hundreds of white farmers had demonstrated at the court hearing for the accused in Terre'Blanche’s murder. Scuffles broke out when a white woman threw a soda at one of the black spectators, and white farmers began to sing “Die Stem,” the apartheid-era national anthem. Police had built a barricade of razor wire to keep the two groups apart.
In 1985, when I first arrived in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and President Pieter Willem Botha brutally enforced white minority rule. Today, 16 years after Mandela became president, apartheid may have disappeared, but the country is still divided socially and economically. Many people remain stuck in all-black townships and fetid squatter camps, with no water, indoor toilets, or electricity.
I have both black and white friends. But here, as in America, I don’t see much social integration, even among the well-educated and wealthy, and a careless word can easily make people retreat back into their segregated worlds. Society is still recovering from the abuses of apartheid, and racial violence—against blacks as well as whites—still takes place, especially in the small towns and rural areas out of sight.
While it is true that Terre'Blanche’s movement has always belonged on the fringes, and the supremacists represent just a small fraction of Afrikaners today, commentators in South Africa are often oblivious to the sentiments—and fears—brewing in the parts of the country removed from the more tolerant urban centers like Johannesburg.
Several people I interviewed after the funeral, at a shopping center in a nearby farming town, said they fear that deteriorating race relations might bring more serious violence, maybe even a civil war. “It’s been smoldering since the early ’90s,” said one Afrikaner I spoke to.
A young white college student told me she was frightened for her mother and father, who lived on a farm. More than 3,000 white farmers have been killed since the early ’90s, and although the government insists they are victims of the high crime rate that claims both white and black, she—like many Afrikaners—believed these killings are racially motivated.
“I am not free,” said one young black man I spoke to. He is afraid and no longer goes out at night. Just the day before, he had heard of whites shooting into a black taxi, he told me.
Whether the racial violence is real or imagined, rumors are powerful in a divided country, and the radicals who prey on the poor and dissatisfied will try and use them. The government has tried to keep these tensions in check, wanting to avoid any more trouble before and during the World Cup. But this challenge goes well beyond soccer. It is about the future of a young and still fragile democracy, and demagogues on both sides are among the biggest challenges to Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an Emmy- and Peabody award-winning journalist who reports for NPR and others in South Africa. She has been CNN bureau chief in Johannesburg, chief national correspondent for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and written for The New York Times Magazine, Essence, O, and Vogue. She is author of New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance and In My Place, a memoir of making history as the first African-American woman to enter the University of Georgia.