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Racial Divide Survives Apartheid's Demise

S. Africa: Despite integration efforts, whites still control power and wealth.

May 27, 1999|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DURBAN, South Africa — When you visit the new deputy presiding judge at the High Court here, a white attendant directs you to a parking space. A white official greets you at the entrance. A white guard checks your bags. A white escort accompanies you to the chambers, where a white secretary seats you.

The regal-looking man in the red robe and pressed ruffles is the judge. He is one of the few blacks in the building.

"Speaking generally, the perception here locally is that, historically, white people look down on black people--it is a fact whether you like it or not," said Judge Vuka Tshabalala. "Racist or not, they don't think a black man is capable of anything."

Tshabalala has been on the job just a few months, the first black to serve as the KwaZulu-Natal provincial court's second-in-command. The walls of his colonial-era chambers are still decorated with the bare nails from his predecessor's packed-up pictures.

Like many rising black stars in the new South Africa, Tshabalala arrived here in spite of his white colleagues. More than three-quarters of the provincial High Court judges are white, and all but a handful of them publicly opposed his appointment.

Five years ago, South Africans of all races voted in the country's first democratic elections, giving the nation a black majority government for the first time since European settlers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope 3 1/2 centuries ago. As South Africans prepare to return to the polls next Wednesday for a second national vote, the historic black-white schism endures as one of the country's most sensitive and intractable problems.

Although a majority of whites endorsed the negotiated transition to black rule, large numbers have come kicking and screaming into the new South Africa, a place that they say is much worse than they had envisaged. In an independent survey in December, only 6% of white respondents indicated that they were satisfied with the way the country was being run.

Many whites have compensated by clinging to rich and powerful institutions not directly subject to the ballot box, including big business, banking, academia, the news media and even some slow-to-transform government institutions such as the judiciary and police.

Divisions Hinder Reconciliation Efforts

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who is poised to succeed President Nelson Mandela next month, has complained bitterly about the divisions between white and black that he says have blocked efforts at national reconciliation.

"We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations," he told Parliament last year.

The racial tension exists in part because South Africa's cautious transition has, by design, placed great value on both continuity and change. The strategy has burdened leaders with the task of transforming a fundamentally racist society without turning it inside out. That has left many blacks feeling cheated and many whites with an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

Not only are black judges a minority--only 34 of the 183 High Court judges nationwide are black or of mixed race--but just 5.5% of market capitalization on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is under black control despite stepped-up government intervention on behalf of previously disadvantaged investors.

Black faces in brokerage houses are virtually nonexistent, as are black managers in big banks. In keeping with the flight of white commerce from newly black downtown Johannesburg, the stock exchange will move next year from Diagonal Street--the Wall Street of South Africa--to suburban Sandton, the metropolitan area's new white central business district.

There have been numerous high-profile black empowerment deals in business, but financial analysts say there is little evidence that they benefit the broader population. A 1998 survey by Cape Town-based think tank Breakwater Monitor of 430 businesses found that blacks hold just one in 15 senior management positions and one in nine junior management jobs. Tshabalala's mostly white courthouse is testimony to the same issue.

In their effort to stop Tshabalala's appointment, white judges declared in a letter to judicial authorities that he would "not be able to command the respect of other judges" because there were better-qualified candidates--all of whom were white. Their recommendation: an erstwhile member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, an organization dedicated to the separation of races under apartheid.

"It is a general attitude: If you are black you have got to prove yourself to be acceptable. It is only after you have been performing that they say after all, 'This man is good,' " Tshabalala said. "One of [the white judges] was actually so forthright as to say to me, 'I want to tell you straight that I didn't want you. . . . But now that you are here, there is nothing that I can do. I am working with you because I have to.' "

Black Judge Takes It All in Stride

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