Afrikaners put trust in post-Mandela SA

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iol pic sa mandela procession


South Africans wave the country's flag as they watch the funeral cortege carrying the body of Nelson Mandela to the Union Buildings on Madiba street in Pretoria. Picture: Roberto SCHMIDT

Pretoria -

This week, the world has been remembering South Africa's finest hour, the peaceful transition to democracy presided over by Nelson Mandela.

On Wednesday, as he was taken to lie in state at Union Buildings, the seat of government in the capital Pretoria, South Africans recalled the pinnacle of that transition when he was sworn in as the country's first black president at the very same spot 19 years earlier.

Back then, many people had to pinch themselves as the white generals and police chiefs of the old apartheid regime saluted their new boss, watched by dozens of world leaders.

For the Afrikaans-speaking minority, which had wielded political power for half a century, it was a uncertain time.

Mandela had bent over backwards to reassure whites - both Afrikaners and English speakers - that he bore no grudge.

But some whites feared that the black majority would nonetheless seek revenge. Jaco Theunissen was a young Afrikaans-speaking navy officer when Mandela came to power.

“There was a lot of suspicion, mostly based on colour. Many wondered: is there a future for a white man, is my career going to be limited?” Theunissen, who is the navy's press officer, told dpa in an interview at Union Buildings.

Once in power, Mandela continued to make overtures to whites. Conscious of the power of symbols, he famously donned the jersey of the all-white Springboks rugby team - once an emblem of apartheid - to award the rugby World Cup trophy when South Africa lifted the tournament on home soil.

That same year - 1995 - he visited the Afrikaner enclave of Orania to have tea with Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.

A number of whites left the country nonetheless, spurred by high levels of violent crime and the perceived lack of opportunity. For Theunissen exile was never an option. “I'm a pure-bred South African,” the affable father of two says.

In the past few years the grumblings among some whites of “reverse racism” and discrimination have become louder. In October 250 people complaining of a “genocide” of whites - a reference to the violent crime of which all racial groups are victim - demonstrated in Pretoria, an Afrikaner bastion.

Such sentiments represent only a fraction of whites, most of whom have embraced democracy and worship Mandela.

“Before, white people were protected by the state. The best jobs were reserved for whites. Now if someone doesn't get a job they say it's because they are white but in most cases its a question of merit,” Theunissen said.

Theodore Venter, a political analyst and lecturer at North-West University, said that one of the legacies of black emancipation has been the emergence of a black middle class that shares the same fears as whites.

Those fears revolve around the economy and governance not violence, and were expressed in the boos that current President Jacob Zuma, who has been dogged by allegations of corruption, elicited at Tuesday's memorial service, according to Venter.

“The people who booed Zuma were black not white,” he noted.

These days, whites, who make up around 9 percent of the population, are observers of the situation, rather than protagonists.

“In national politics their role as a distinct group is gone forever,” Venter said.

As the ANC becomes embroiled in infighting and scandal he sees South Africas' 1993 constitution - one of the most progressive in the world - as being the glue that binds the nation henceforth.

Others are putting their trust in people power.

“There are a lot of conflicts and questions about the people that came into power after Mandela,” said Melanne Gibson, 40, who waited on a pavement in Pretoria on Wednesday to watch Mandela's hearse pass.

“But the country realises that peace and freedom mean something.” - Sapa-dpa

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