The Legacy That Won't Die

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There is no denying the miracle of South Africa's transition from white minority to black majority rule, but after 300 years of colonial history and more than 40 of statutory segregation, racism did not disappear overnight. A national conference called by President Thabo Mbeki at the end of this month aims to define the shades of racism that still exist in the rainbow nation. The surprise is that one of the submissions before the government-sponsored debate will name Mbeki himself as an offender.

The leader of the parliamentary opposition Democratic Party, Tony Leon, last week accused Mbeki of injecting race into the debate over aids and rape. For weeks, Leon has been involved in an aggressive wrangle with Mbeki on the President's handling of hiv-aids issues. Leon was especially critical of the appointment to the national aids advisory panel of "dissident" scientists who hold the view that hiv and aids are not linked.

Mbeki has described as "hysterical" the estimates of HIV and AIDS levels in sub-Saharan Africa. Partly because of his views the government rejected antiretroviral therapy for HIV-positive pregnant women, while supporting a local "miracle" anti-aids drug which was ultimately discredited by international scientists. Mbeki seemed intent on finding an African solution to the aids problem, said Leon, even if it meant disregarding scientific facts in favor of "snake-oil cures and quackery." In a letter to Leon, Mbeki said the belief that most black men carry the hiv virus was a "dangerous prejudice." He also questioned the validity of rape statistics, suggesting that "racist rage" from a white victim might be behind the claim that rape is endemic to African society. Leon replied that Mbeki's views and arguments were disingenuous, and that some were "frankly sinister."

Mbeki's reaction to all this was an uncharacteristic public outburst. Delivering the annual Oliver Tambo memorial lecture in Johannesburg, Mbeki launched into a bitter attack on Leon. Without referring to him by name he called him "the white politician" Mbeki accused Leon of being an arrogant racist who "spoke openly of his disdain and contempt for African solutions to the challenges that face the peoples of our continent," and who saw Africans as "pagan, savage, superstitious and unscientific." It was an attitude that revealed "entrenched white racism that is a millennium old," said Mbeki. "It was an astonishing tirade," said one of the 30 or so whites in the audience of 500. "I wondered whether I shouldn't start edging for the door."

Leon said last week he would submit Mbeki's speech to the national Human Rights Commission conference as "a prime and blatant example of the abusive misuse of racism as a political tool." Behind Mbeki's remarks, he said, was a clear tactic to use "dangerous racial stereotyping" to malign his opponents and win populist support.

In June, Leon's Democratic Party, whose 38 seats make it the main opponent of Mbeki's 266 African National Congress seats in South Africa's 400-member Parliament, agreed to form links with the New National Party the reformed remnant of the old National Party that was the architect of apartheid. The two parties were to form the core of a 71-member "Democratic Alliance" opposition bloc. Leon, a popular young liberal leader, says the only effective guarantee of democracy in South Africa is to reduce the A.N.C. to less than 50% of the vote (now it has almost 66%). His predominantly white Democratic Alliance will be trying to enroll more blacks to contest municipal elections throughout the country in November. "Only when the A.N.C. is faced with a meaningful reduction in its size and power can its worst instincts and power lust be held in check," says Leon. "Mbeki's only response to opposition is to try either to co-opt it, silence it, or demonize it."

Mbeki's attack on Leon may well have been a party-political speech designed to shore up the A.N.C. against a significant opposition initiative. "It is upsetting to see Mbeki stirring up the race issue," says Helen Suzman, a veteran figure in South Africa's liberal movement, "but it was probably a diversion by Mbeki away from his real concern about a growing opposition." For many South Africans, however, Mbeki's broadside was a pointed reminder that theirs is still a country of two nations one white, one black in which racial reconciliation has a long way to go.