Race relations at crossroads in Mandela's South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – As a country that emerged from years of racial segregation, South Africa is often lauded for its reconciliation efforts, but cracks in the foundation of Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation" are starting to show.

In the 25 years since the late anti-apartheid hero's release from prison on February 11, 1990, South Africa has had to confront the realities of its divided past.

It has not been easy, and race remains a dividing factor despite the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which sought to help heal the wounds.

A recent spike in race-tinged comments from the public and political leaders alike has raised questions about the country's ability to fully reconcile with its history, and the extent of apartheid-era divisions in the public psyche.

"The reconciliation project is in trouble," said Verne Harris, director of research and archives at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Perhaps South Africans "tried to reckon with our pasts too quickly", he said, referring to the TRC, which focused on politically-motivated crimes during traumatic hearings which began in 1996.

"Some countries can wait. Even 20 years. We could not wait," he said, adding that the old schisms in society had resurfaced.

The renaming this month of a Cape Town street in honor of the country's last white apartheid-era leader, FW de Klerk, was met with protests by some in the black community who queried his role in bringing about change in South Africa.

De Klerk is credited with releasing Mandela from prison and dismantling apartheid laws, leading him to share a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993.

Black critics, however, point to the role of De Klerk's government in atrocities even in the dying days of apartheid.

In a speech on the renaming, De Klerk referred to the "new, bitter and confrontational tone in the national discourse" as the antithesis of everything that Mandela worked for during his time as president.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, which is tasked with preserving the legacy of the late peace icon, has been hosting public dialogues on issues of reconciliation.

"We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road," said Harris.

South Africa needs to look beyond the TRC and consider implementing new strategies for reckoning with the past.

"The vast majority of South Africans live in a reality that is still profoundly shaped by apartheid. It makes them angry... old divisions and old schisms have become more marked now," he said.

'Colonialism to blame'

Last month, President Jacob Zuma came under fire over his comments about the arrival of the first Dutch settler, Jan van Riebeek, who came to the Cape in 1652.

He told delegates attending an African National Congress dinner that Van Riebeek's arrival was "the start of trouble in this country".

The right-wing Freedom Front Plus party threatened to lay hate-speech charges against Zuma.

His statement also elicited a fierce tirade on social media from Mandela's former personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, who tweeted: "I'm SICK of Jacob Zuma's constant go at whites every few months."

Her series of tweets made headlines and angered many blacks, who denounced her as a racist.

According to Anele Mtwesi, a researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation, racial divisions in South Africa "have been simmering for a while, especially in the last year".

"We are not traveling on the same path. After the TRC we all assumed that things would then just fall into place."

She lamented that the burden of forgiveness had been placed on the shoulders of victims of past injustices.

"I think the burden has become too much. Reconciliation is supposed to be a collective effort."

The results of a decade-long study on race relations revealed that just 53 percent of white South Africans believe that apartheid was a crime against humanity. 

The study by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation said the period between 2010 and 2013 witnessed the steepest decline in citizens' desire for a united South Africa. 

The director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of Free State, Andre Keet, pinned the lack of common identity among South Africans on not having a "history of solidarity across the divide".

"Our style of national politics does not help in developing these solidarities," said Keet.

The country had "focused too much on the TRC process... and less on what would be the democratic political project that should bring us together", he said, adding that a sense of superiority among white people was still strong. – Rappler.com