Hate crime trials force country to face racism

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The Independent Online

South Africa will confront the still-seeping wounds of its past again today with the start of two high-profile court cases centred on gruesome hate crimes less than two weeks before it hosts a world conference on racism.

Seven white South Africans will be brought to court for the start of two separate trials that will lay bare the allegations of continued racism and brutality in the country. Meanwhile, America, Israel and India threaten to boycott all or part of the UN conference on racism, scheduled to start in Durban on 31 August.

At Pretoria High Court, six white police officers will face charges of attempted murder for allegedly using dogs to attack three illegal immigrants. South Africans were appalled last November when a video of the attack, made by the officers as a "training film'', was broadcast on television. It showed the officers shouting racial abuse in Afrikaans and laughing as dogs bitthe victims.

In a separate trial in a mobile court – chosen to prevent the disruption of proceedings – Pieter Odendaal, a white man who runs a building business, will face a murder charge for allegedly tying one of his black employees, John Rampuru, to his truck and dragging him three miles to his death along the roads of Sasolburg in August last year. The killing was similar to the murder of James Byrd in Texas in 1998 by three whites.

The two trials will uncomfortably highlight the debate that is surrounding preparations for the week-long World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, at which more than 10,000 delegates are expected.

America and Israel have threatened to boycott the meeting in protest over calls from Arab states for Zionism to be equated with racism. The recent upsurge of violence in the Middle East has led to proposals to revive a UN General Assembly resolution – introduced in 1975 and repealed in 1991 – that equated the two.

America and several Eurpoean Union countries, including Britain, are concerned that a round of agenda-setting meetings by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva ended 10 days ago without agreement on the wording of a demand from several African countries and black American lobby groups for the issue of slavery compensation to feature in the final declaration of the Durban conference.

The run-up to the meeting, the third of its kind in 20 years, has also been dogged by the Indian government's refusal to consider a debate on the Hindu caste system. It raises the prospect of a boycott by government delegations or representatives of India's 160 million Dalits – the lowest caste.

Last year's world Aids conference in Durban proved more useful for its host country than for any other, because it helped to end South African denial of its own epidemic. In the same way, observers hope the racism conference – with the trials of Mr Odendaal and the police officers – will encourage South Africans to talk constructively about combating racism.

Last week, many South Africans expressed shock at a decision by the Blue Bulls rugby union club to cancel disciplinary action against nine white players, seven of whom are out on bail despite facing charges of murder for their alleged role in the March killing of a black man they suspected of poaching.