The man responsible was standing ahead of us - a fat, blond white South African policeman. Despite all the conscious raising on the long road to freedom, Mr Netsianda was reduced to "boy" again in the presence of "baas". "He used to beat me up during demonstrations," an embarrassed Mr Netsianda explained later.
It seems almost trite that race dominates a country like South Africa; but six months into my stint here, its all- pervasiveness still shocks.
Two years after the end of white minority rule Mr Netianda's humiliation is a subtle moment in the racial shake-down under way. Now and again there are more obscene flashes, like the middle-aged woman who cocked her thumb towards the run-down huts at the bottom of her garden, during my search for a house to rent, and said: "You can have him if you like. If you don't want him, we'll evict him." She was referring to the black gardener who lived on the premises.
She went on to offer some advice about handling lazy "bleks". That was in your face. More often the racism lurks, shark-like, beneath the surface, the real root of some other "problem". Ask white South Africans why they have forsaken Johannesburg's city centre in their tens of thousands, moving offices nearer their luxurious, and increasingly fortified, homes in the predominantly white northern suburbs and they will answer: crime.
The city centre's crime rate is undeniably high. But scratch a little and discover the seldom mentioned bogeyman - Africa: squalid, poor and black, which the continent's white South Africans, eyes forever fixed on Europe, have for centuries tried to ignore. In the northern suburbs the city could be Surrey. So it was once with the centre when rich white ladies in long white gloves met for tea served by black waiters, banished to townships after dark.
But when legislation designed to keep blacks down - and out of white areas - began to crumble, the dark continent began to seep and then flood through. Whites, appalled at the loss of ownership, evacuated. Dennis Beckett, a South African journalist, calls the retreat to high walls and panic buttons the "look-at-Africa-and-run-like-hell" syndrome. It is a dangerous condition; it helps keep apartheid in place without the need for legislation.
Despite the aspirations of President Mandela's rainbow nation there are still two South Africas; one white, the other black. Whites generally drive cars; blacks queue for mini-buses. Road-repair gangs are black; foremen white.
Against the background of this social schizophrenia, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has wrestled this year to heal a sick society. The state- sanctioned violence that was required to keep racial madness in place has been laid bare in testimony to the commission, and in the recent court case involving the self-confessed state assassin Eugene de Kock. But many whites remain strangely blinkered, even blind.
During a three-week trip to Rwanda in November I encountered the feared dark heart of Africa. In this lush, green country dominated by spectacular volcanic mountains the international press corps was on Hutu refugee watch. Two years before the hotel we shared in Gisenyi, on the border with Zaire, was the headquarters for Hutu militias as they carried out the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis. Few of us swam in the beautiful hotel pool. In 1994 it had been filled with the corpses of men, women and babies.
Across the border in rebel-held Goma, squalor nestled next to opulence. In President Mobutu's luxurious lakeside villa, giant, gallon-size bottles of pure French perfume decorated the his 'n' hers Jacuzzis. A quarter of a mile down the road Mr Mobutu must have travelled to reach his holiday home was the crumbling block of flats which until the rebellion had housed his unpaid and corrupt armed forces. This was the African caricature. A continent of war, violence, poverty and tin-pot dictators.
When I returned to South Africa, whites discussed the Great Lakes crisis as if it was happening on another planet. "It's tribal, isn't it?" said one white female colleague. "How could Mobutu live like that when his people were so poor?"
She could connect violence and the cruel indifference of the ruler to the ruled to "black on black" violence at home. But she was blind to any connection with the violence perpetrated by South Africa's own white tribe, despite months of harrowing testimony at the truth commission.
Among South Africa's blacks there is a strong feeling that no one will pay for the sins of the past. One of the saddest moments of the past six months occurred in October outside a Durban court when General Magnus Malan, former Defence Minister, and one of apartheid's most hated figures, was cleared of murder after a seven-month trial failed to prove that he issued orders leading to the massacre of 13 people in a village south of Durban.
A grinning General Malan stood on the steps outside the court professing his innocence and Christianity. A few feet away Anna Ntuli, who lost three daughters and her husband in the KwaMakutha massacre, stood quietly watching. She was bewildered. "My children and my husband died and yet no one killed them," she said. Then she began to cry.
South Africa CorrespondentReuse content