South Africa’s new government rekindles racial tensions


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CAPE TOWN, South Africa’s new coalition government has brought together a Black president and a white opposition leader in an image of “unity” according to the Americans.

Yet the power-sharing agreement struck a week ago between President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress party and the Democratic Alliance, one of South Africa’s few white-led parties, has unwittingly renewed some racial divides.

Many Black South Africans have expressed unease with a white-led party that is back in power, even in a coalition. The country is plagued by the apartheid system of white minority rule that ended 30 years ago, but is still felt by millions among the Black majority who have been relentlessly oppressed by a white government and affected by unresolved issues of poverty and inequality.

South Africa is now faced with the likelihood of seeing more white people in senior government positions than ever since apartheid ended. White people make up about 7% of the country’s population of 62 million.

The ANC “liberated” South Africa from apartheid in 1994 under Nelson Mandela, the country’s first Black president. Its three-decade political dominance ended in the landmark May 29 election, forcing it to form a coalition. The DA, with its roots in liberal white parties that stood against apartheid, received the second largest share of votes.

Both promoted their coming together in a multi-party coalition as a new unit desperately needed in a country with major socio-economic problems.

But history lingers. The DA suspended one of its white lawmakers on Thursday, days after he was sworn into Parliament, over racist insults he made in a video on social media more than a decade ago. Renaldo Gouws – allegedly a student in his 20s at the time – used a particularly offensive term for Black people who were notorious during apartheid and are now considered hate speech.

South Africans cheer ahead of the inauguration of Cyril Ramaphosa as President at the Union Buildings South Lawns in Pretoria, South Africa, on 19 June 2024.

South Africans cheer ahead of the inauguration of Cyril Ramaphosa as President at the Union Buildings South Lawns in Pretoria, South Africa, on 19 June 2024.

Gouws faces disciplinary action from his party, and the South African Human Rights Commission has said it will take him to court. The DA, which had previously fended off allegations of favouritism from whites, is under scrutiny again.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, a key political ally of the ANC, claimed that Gouws’ outburst was symptomatic of a DA “soft on racists”. The DA “must reflect and address this if it wants to be accepted by ordinary South Africans as a partner in government of national unity,” the statement said.

DA leader John Steenhuisen denied in a television interview that his party was dedicated only to white interests, saying he would not have won the second-largest share of votes in a black majority country if it had been. The DA has Black and white legislators and supporters, but its only Black leader left the party in 2019 and questioned its commitment to Black South Africans.

Political analyst Angelo Fick said the DA did have a “sense of whiteness” in the eyes of many South Africans and created it by being “completely disinterested in speaking to the concerns about race of Black South Africans.”

Shortly before Gouws’ case, racially charged language came from a different direction when the MK Party of former president. Jacob Zuma — once an ANC leader — called Ramaphosa a “house negro” for making the deal with the DA. Zuma’s party also referred to white DA chairperson Helen Zille as Ramaphosa’s “slave master”.

The MK Party and the Economic Freedom Fighters – the third and fourth largest parties in Parliament – have refused to join what the ANC calls a government of national unity that is open to all. They said the fundamental reason was the DA, which they said was only committed to the welfare of South Africa’s white minority.

“We do not agree to this marriage of convenience to consolidate the white monopoly power over the economy,” eff leader Julius Malema said.

Malema sometimes provoked racial tensions by demanding change, once saying, “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now,” and that South Africa’s “white man has been too comfortable for too long.”

He now says his party is not against white people, but against a perceived “white privilege” that leaves 64% of black people in poverty compared to 1% of white people, according to a 2021 report by the South African Human Rights Commission.

Malema represents a new opposition to the ANC by many Black South Africans who are frustrated by the race-based inequality evident after 30 years of freedom. White people generally live in posh neighborhoods. Millions of black people live in impoverished townships on the outskirts.

This frustration led many voters to give up on the ANC. Concerns about cooperation with the DA could weaken the party even further.

In his inauguration speech on Wednesday, Ramaphosa acknowledged the “toxic” divisions that remain decades after Mandela proclaimed racial reconciliation. “Our society remains deeply unequal and highly polarised,” Ramaphosa said.

The ANC is trying to use the coalition as a kind of reboot of Mandela’s ideals.

“For us, it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white,” ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula said of the deal with the DA. Mandela used the phrase to indicate that he is open to all races serving in South Africa’s government.

“Fundamentally,” Mbalula said, “the question is how we move the country forward.”


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