Justice has never been color-blind in South Africa. In the days of apartheid, when the country's constitution enshrined discrimination against the African majority, judges were obliged to see the world in black and white. These days, South Africa boasts one of the most liberal constitutions anywhere and officially embraces the ideal of a "nonracial" society. But according to Judge President John Hlophe of the Cape High Court, racism persists, no longer written into the country's laws or ledgers, but incised in the hearts and minds of the judiciary itself. Hlophe complained last year that he and other black judges had experienced racism by white colleagues on "numerous" occasions, verbal attacks designed deliberately "to undermine the intellect and talent of black judges."
White members of the Cape bar protest their innocence, saying they have backed the transformation of the judiciary. And a report commissioned by the General Council of the Bar last year cleared them of responsibility for a false slur that Hlophe had written a judgment for fellow black judge James Yekiso because Yekiso was incapable of writing it himself. But the race row rages on. In February, in an attempt to end the squabbling, South Africa's outgoing Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson announced that every high court jurisdiction in the country would be part of an internal inquiry into racism and sexism. The judiciary's independence is a vital component of the constitution, Chaskalson said. For the public to have confidence in the judiciary, it was time to have "frank discussions" about issues like racism.
Perhaps it's time all South Africans joined that debate. More than a decade since the formation of the Rainbow Nation, South Africa's bands of color remain distinct, their edges sharply delineated. Race is still a dominant political issue with the power to divide society and, some argue, even destabilize it. True, much has changed. South Africans no longer live in fear of a race war, and blacks and whites now work together, live in the same neighborhoods, shop at the same supermarkets, and even occasionally marry. The constitution says all citizens must be treated equally. Symbols of the past, including the apartheid-era National Party, which last week announced that it will disband itself, are disappearing. And South Africa is not unique in struggling to overcome long-standing divisions; Europe and the U.S. face similar issues. But even as South Africa has become more open and free, many of the walls within remain. Until they are broken down, the Rainbow Nation will remain more myth than reality.
Public discussions over everything from the government's aids policy to the selection of the national cricket team regularly descend into racial squabbles. Even affirmative action policies, designed to address past injustices and undo the old divisions, reinforce racial differences in new ways. "Our separation is still there. It's very deeply entrenched and embedded into the minds of the people in this country," says Reverend Basil Manning, CEO of [an error occurred while processing this directive] the Ditshwanelo caras Trust, an antiracism and antisexism organization. "There's no way we can undo that with the snap of a finger."
Lack of contact between South Africa's blacks, whites, mixed-race coloreds and Indians a chasm that shrank after the first free elections in 1994, but which may now be growing again reinforces that separation. According to a study released in November last year by the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), 36% of South Africans have no cross-racial contact in their daily interactions, up from 26% in April 2003. An even greater percentage of people, 56%, have no cross-racial contact when they socialize.
These trends manifest themselves in decisions about where to live. As blacks move into old white suburbs, many whites have migrated to the fringes of the country's cities, where they live in gated communities that keep the new South Africa and, they say, crime at bay. Little wonder then that 6 out of 10 South Africans say they still find it difficult to understand the customs and ways of other races, while 4 out of 10 don't trust fellow citizens of different races. "An inability to understand the 'other' continues to loom large," says Karin Lombard, project coordinator for the study dubbed the South African Reconciliation Barometer. "Breaking these barriers down takes time."
There are still extremists white radicals who dream of an independent nation, and black activists who ponder kicking the whites out altogether but they are now fringe dwellers. The real trouble lies within mainstream South Africa as it struggles to erase three centuries of prejudice and legal and social divisions. "The majority of whites who supported apartheid are in denial about their history and consider the subject beyond scrutiny," says author Heidi Holland, who is writing a book about an infamous racist murderer. "Many of them have psychologically emigrated from the country, burying themselves in their suburbs and cluster homes where they are not being challenged to realize that there are other ways of doing things."
The ijr study found that 32% of South Africans still do not approve of their child sitting next to a kid from a different race in the classroom, and although just over half of those surveyed approve of living in a neighborhood in which half their neighbors are from a different racial group, 51% would not approve of a close relative marrying a person of another race. White people are particularly wary of interracial marriage; just 16% say they would approve of a close relative taking the plunge with a black, Indian or colored person. "A lot of people have deluded themselves that because we've taken the hard edges of apartheid legislation away, we're suddenly living in a nonracial society," says Manning. "We need to start accepting that racism exists in almost every sphere. Only then can we move on."