Leading Article: The last gasp for Cape Town bigots

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The scenes outside a Cape Town school this week, where angry working- class whites with clubs and dogs sought to prevent black pupils from going to school in their neighbourhood, appeared to belong to Mississippi or Alabama in the Sixties rather than to the new South Africa of 1995. A closer examination of the underlying forces and tensions at work show the similarities are more than superficial.

The April 1994 election may have achieved a peaceful transfer of political power in South Africa, but a more equitable distribution of resources has barely begun. The divisions are particularly sharp in the western Cape, where blacks were never intended to have a place under apartheid, and where they remain in a minority. Black squatter camps lacking the most basic amenities exist side by side with white suburbs, such as Ruyterwacht, where schools have closed for lack of pupils.

Outvoted by whites and mixed-race coloureds, blacks in the western Cape find themselves subject to the only regional government controlled by the Nationalists, the former ruling party of apartheid. Whites fearing the consequences of black majority rule have been drawn to the area from elsewhere in South Africa. So it was almost inevitable that the first flare-up over educational equality would occur there.

Nor is it surprising that it should take place in a working-class white district such as Ruyterwacht. In South Africa in the Nineties, just as much as in the United States 30 to 40 years ago, the loss of racial privilege is easier for well-educated middle-class whites to contemplate than for those whose livelihood and living standards have been dependent mainly on their skin colour.

For President Nelson Mandela, who has to address the largely unfulfilled expectations of South Africa's poorest when he opens a new session of parliament in Cape Town today, the angry scenes in Ruyterwacht might appear ominous. Many whites have scarcely begun to contemplate, let alone accept, the huge adjustments that will be required of them if social and economic justice is to be achieved for the black majority. Going far enough to satisfy the demands of township militants risks provoking a violent reaction from those who have most to lose.

So far, however, the worst fears of a white backlash in South Africa have failed to materialise. Compared with the predictions of what might happen in the transition to non-racial government, the clashes in the Cape this week still appear mild. And if one looks at what happened in the Deep South of the US, there may be cause for hope. Far from signalling a lasting insurrection, the assaults on civil rights marchers turned out to be no more than a last spasm of frustration among bigots trying to suppress the realisation that their time was up.