The way they live now, in black and white

The South African elite is panicking. Peter Hain watches a documentary on the white man's burden; White Lives Channel 4
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The Independent Culture
When the widow of Alan Paton moved to Britain to escape the rampant crime in the new South Africa, she remarked: "Fly The Beloved Country". There could hardly have been a more poignant phrase.Yet having lurched schizophrenically from terror at the prospect of black majority rule to worship of Nelson Mandela as their saviour, some other whites are fleeing with her.

Their disillusionment was well captured by Paul Watson's Channel 4 documentary White Lives. Here was the Christian, racist bigot, the neo-Nazi, the racist policeman, the traditional, Afrikaner family, the well-heeled, English- speaking victim of crime, the English immigrant family so much better off than it was in the UK - all these were paraded as "victims" of the new system.

Victims? Get real. The real victims are still Steve Biko and Mandela himself, the many thousands who were killed, maimed, imprisoned or tortured and the millions they spoke for who still suffer terrible deprivation. The film undoubtedly plays to a gallery of opinion that never really was on the side of the anti-apartheid struggle, that always wanted to believe the change was for the worst, but couldn't say so amidst the euphoria of Mandela's miracle.

Their true message is compelling evidence of the mental distance which even the "reasonable" whites (as exemplified by the Afrikaner and the English-speaking families) need to travel if the high expectations following the relatively peaceful end to apartheid are ever to be realised.

The violent crime which so understandably disturbs and frightens them must be tackled by the Government. But these whites refuse to acknowledge that today's problems are an inevitable legacy of white persecution of blacks lasting over 300 years.

They refuse individually to accept responsibility for the terrible excesses of the 46 years of apartheid - the final intensification of that persecution. They also deny that failure to oppose such a morally disgusting system was, in effect, to support it, especially when it conferred privileges and an artificially high standard of living on them at the expense of their black neighbours. Nor will they accept that black South Africans have shown a tolerance and lack of vengeance towards whites which is quite unique in this world and which requires some reciprocal gratitude, instead of continuous carping and whining.

Their inbred racism means a mindset of blaming the mistakes that have been made since majority rule on the race of those making them. But mistakes occur in all societies and were certainly legion under apartheid. People are corrupt, experience lapses of judgement and become intoxicated with power as individuals, not as blacks or whites.

The truth is that under apartheid whites led a sheltered existence crime- wise, as well as in all other respects. Blacks in their segregated townships were always subjected to the violent crime of any "ghetto". Soweto was for years the murder capital of the world. Now, with the abolition of the black curfew, this crime - endemic, brutal - has spread to city centres and white residential areas.

This is not to belittle the existence of the frightening incidence of violent crime in South Africa today; it is merely to introduce a sense of proportion. Such crime has long been endemic in many of the world's large cities.

It is also important for whites to drop the fiction that conceding an end to their racist rule is in itself enough of a sacrifice and that nothing more can be required of them. Crime apart, their immensely privileged lifestyles continue almost unchanged. They have bequeathed their country monumental problems: millions of people still without running water, electricity or a roof over their heads. Black unemployment is above 40 per cent. Political change has not yet changed the economy.

Fundamental to the future of the new South Africa is the creation of jobs for blacks in sufficient numbers and sufficiently quickly to convince young blacks that there is a decent future for them, and that crime and violence are not the only avenues available. Also fundamental are the replacement with proper housing of the squatter camps that ring the large cities and the provision of proper education and health services.

White South Africans should be prepared to contribute more to make up the financial shortfall, instead of quietly shifting their money out of the country, as so many do. The wealth of the country remains in white hands and it now behoves them to put their wallets where their mouths are - to reinvest that wealth in the country they profess to love. Failure to involve themselves fully in the rebuilding of their country and the reduction of its massive inequalities could well lead to their losing everything.

The West too must stop sitting on the fence, its leaders queuing up to be photographed with Mandela while his country is starved of foreign capital. Europe's reluctance to open its markets to South Africa's agricultural produce is another blow to the new rainbow nation.

Given the enormous task faced in the four years since the first democratic general election, much has been achieved in spite of the foreign investment problems and lower commodity prices. Apart from impressive, individual- rights achievements, including abolition of the death penalty, removal of discrimination against gays and increased representation of women (who make up a quarter of the ANC's MPs), houses for blacks have been built, with electricity and water. There are the beginnings of a black presence in the upper levels of business.

The coalition Government of National Unity which has run the country since April 1994 will end within six months at the general election and is likely to be replaced by a majority ANC Government led by Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki. How the ANC reacts then will really determine whether South Africa prospers or whether it slides into desperate decline, as has occurred in Russia post-Gorbachev.

The mood within the country is still optimistic. Notwithstanding the violent crime and alienation portrayed in the Channel 4 documentary, there is still a surprising degree of goodwill and mutual respect between the majorities in the black and white communities.

I was reminded of this again during an idyllic holiday in Cape Town last Christmas. At no time did we feel threatened and the area appeared as free of endemic violence as are most other parts of this vast and beautiful country.

As the black priest said 50 years ago in Alan Paton's novel Cry the Beloved Country: "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating." The truth is that the whites have a lot more loving to do, and the blacks are proving remarkably tolerant about giving them still more time in which to do it.

Peter Hain is a Welsh Office Minister and author of 'Sing the Beloved Country' (Pluto Press, pounds 12.99)