Latest News

White South Africans grapple with apartheid's legacy

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa — Along the wide, tree-lined avenues of Stellenbosch University, a quiet war is being waged. At this bastion of the Afrikaner people — the white South Africans blamed for the horrors of race-based apartheid rule — a generation of students too young to remember the racial strife that nearly tore their country apart is struggling to define itself.

You can hear it in the angry Afrikaans-language music on the campus radio station, in the lecture halls where professors still teach primarily in Afrikaans, in the frustrated voices of graduating students who say the tarnished legacy of their elders makes it impossible for them to find jobs.

Here in the countryside east of Cape Town, full of rolling vineyards and sprawling white mansions, rebellious Afrikaner youth rub shoulders with the old guard who grew up in the apartheid era, who say they can't see why their young people have no interest in their culture. Many young white South Africans here still struggle with the effects of apartheid 17 years after the system was abolished and a government led by the country's black majority took power.

"If you want to talk about apartheid — then yes, our parents and grandparents made mistakes," said Gerhard Raal, who's pursuing a postgraduate degree in education. "But we don't know what actually happened. It's hard for the people who weren't a part of it to move on."

Descendants of Dutch colonists who arrived in South Africa in the mid-1600s, Afrikaners prized individualism and their ties to the land they conquered — fighting two bloody wars against the British to keep it. Over the years, they developed a unique, insular culture that revered religion, rugby and Afrikaans, a dialect that incorporated elements of African tribal languages and their native Dutch.

Most prominent positions in the government under the apartheid years were filled by Afrikaners. They established Afrikaans as the official government language, ensuring that it became one of the most tangible symbols of racism, violence and oppression in a country riven by discord. In 1976, black schoolchildren in the slums of Johannesburg staged mass protests over forced Afrikaans-language instruction, setting off a two-day riot where police shot at protesters, killing nearly 200.

"I felt embarrassed to speak Afrikaans (under apartheid). I wasn't right-wing and I didn't like the apartheid government," said Anne Kruger, the editor of the Paarl Post, an Afrikaans-language newspaper based about an hour outside Cape Town.

"In the 1970s, there was a sort of shame attached to being Afrikaner. I was at university — it was the heyday of the apartheid government — and half of the thinking student body hated it."

Kruger views the frustrations of the generation below them with a sort of perplexity.

"It's more of a rebellion against their parents — the affluence, the materialism," she said. "Most grew up quite privileged."

Compared with the tin shacks and abject poverty just half an hour away in the overwhelmingly black Khayelitsha township — one of the largest slums in South Africa — Stellenbosch University is a fairytale world, with its stately white buildings and wide brick plazas.

Street signs, classroom buildings and the student center are labeled in Afrikaans with no translations. There's barely an English word to be heard on campus.

At MFM 92.6, the Stellenbosch University radio station, Willem Stemmet, the morning sports announcer, is laying down tracks for the next show. He leans over and pulls up a song on the morning's playlist by an Afrikaner band called Fokofpolisiekar, which translates to, "(Expletive) Off Police Car."

"They started making Afrikaans rock music really popular," Stemmet said. "For us, Afrikaans music is more to express ourselves. We use it to tell our parents, '(expletive) off.' "

When it burst onto the South African music scene in 2003, the band's politically charged rock music and sneering disdain for authority resonated with youth.

The band, whose name is commonly abbreviated on South African radio as Polisiekar, "shows a lack of respect for authority figures," said A.M. Grundlingh, the head of the history department at Stellenbosch University and an expert on Afrikaner culture. "It's very inventive — searching in terms of where Afrikaner culture must go. It's become a survivor culture."

Some of the rage isn't unfounded, experts say. Seventeen years after the end of apartheid and the start of what South Africans call their "Rainbow Nation," students say things aren't exactly as equal as they'd like.

"There's definitely a feeling, particularly among white Afrikaner males, that they can't find jobs," said Justin Sylvester, a political analyst from the Institute for Democracy in Africa, a research group.

Beginning in 1994, employment policies like Black Economic Empowerment — a system similar to affirmative action — were enacted to ensure that those neglected, abused and underserved by the apartheid government could take their place in a de-racialized society.

But corruption has undermined the policies' good intentions, Sylvester said, and now it's political connections, not race, that make a difference in hiring practices these days. Many South Africans of all races chafe at what they describe as elitism and fraud within the ruling African National Congress, the political party of Nelson Mandela that helped lead the struggle against apartheid.

"BEE has been narrowly abused to help the elite. What has it done for people living in the townships?" he said. "I don't think it alienates just white people. Inequality's higher now than it was before."

(Whelan, a graduate of Penn State University, reported this story from Cape Town for a class in international journalism.)


See video reports from Penn State student journalists in South Africa.


Fifteen years after apartheid, South Africa is at a crossroad

From uprising to upmarket: A renaissance in Soweto

In South Africa, a family and a nation slowly confront HIV

For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.