After Mandela: Whites hit back over `dishonest' ANC attack

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The Independent Online
After the scathing attack by President Nelson Mandela, the international patron saint of reconciliation, on South Africa's whites, the "white" parties yesterday hit back. Mary Braid in Mafikeng reports on reaction to the bombshell.

Paranoid and unstatesmanlike was the way the National Party described President Mandela's last speech as ANC party leader before the handover to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.

Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Party, traditionally champions of rich whites, went further. It was "undoubtedly the low watermark of Nelson Mandela's presidency: it was intellectually dishonest and unsophisticated in its analysis of the political and economic situation facing South Africa."

Internationally, the media reaction to President Mandela's seeming volte- face on race relations has verged on the hysterical. In South Africa the reaction was more measured. No one expected President Mandela himself to give notice to whites, and certainly not as harshly, but a fundamental change in the ANC position was widely expected.

Did anyone think President Mandela at all justified? The answer highlights the racial chasm which, after three years of reconciliation, still yawns here. Yesterday every ANC delegate seemed to think the old man had got it spot on. The speech soothed their frustration at his "endless pandering" to whites.

After all, they ask, what has changed in three years? Blacks run the government but whites still run everything else. The gap between the rich - largely whites - and the poor - predominantly black - remains.

And white reaction? Some were incensed; but others simply rolled their eyes and felt more out on a limb than ever.

The trouble with the speech was that its paranoia obscured justifiable black frustration. An analysis of ANC performace which blames every party failure on "counter-revolutionary" plots hatched by mysterious underground cells convinces few beyond the comrades and psychiatric patients.

That is not to say that former security force members, still hostile to black rule, are not doing their bit for South Africa's crime figures. But the idea that they are a concerted force deliberately undermining the state is far fetched.

On Tuesday, President Mandela should have stuck to the main theme and forgotten the fantastic subplots. A few months in South Africa is enough to convince any outsider that his complaints are real. The majority of whites live the same old, comfortable, segregated, insular lives they have always lived. The majority of blacks still languish in poverty.

And it is true that in the workplace and the boardroom, there is resistance to the economic and employment changes needed to redress past injustices. Who would have expected anything different? But that this state of affairs could continue for ever was always unlikely. Those who do not have can be expected to increase demands that the promised transformation take place.

Perhaps the gap would be easier to accept, for a while longer, if whites were not so smug. But the fact is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - a foundation of the 1994 negotiated transition to democracy, set up to expose a brutal past and forge a healing united path forward - has turned out to be a largely black affair. Whites are generally not interested in a body which picks at their past like a scab.

Worse, whites - even the liberals that supported the end of minority rule - sit by their pools and whinge about about hospital queues and falling school standards. They are appalled that they should be affected by the government's struggle to stretch services to cover 40 million South Africans and not just the privileged minority served by the previous government.

President Mandela was perfectly entitled to say: "I put in all this reconciliation effort and I expected whites to respond more generously". He could have said: the honeymoon is over. It would have had more effect than the one he delivered. That he said so much more was telling. The level of defensiveness - to the point of paranoia - was startling. The ANC has the next election and probably the one after sewn up. Yet it behaved like a party on the ropes.

Internal party divisions must be far worse than most commentators considered. In the speech, everyone not with the ANC was deemed to be against it - that is, all opposition parties, except the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party with which the ANC is discussing merger, undermining the notion that South Africa will emerge as a multi-party democracy. It is all very well to play to the impatient cadres but the unjustified attacks on the "white- owned" media added to that impression.

If South Africa is to become the peaceful multiracial society it claims it wants to be, the speech was also ill-judged. One of the most worrying trends in post-apartheid South Africa is the white community's tendency to drop out of politics. Awkward they may be but, for now, the future of South Africa still depends on them being persuaded into the process. This speech did not bring them one inch closer.

Castigating whites for moral failure is one thing; making them scapegoats for the mountain of difficulties facing government is another. Until this week that would have been too cheap - and easy - a shot for the ANC, and its outgoing leader.