Worried about surging violent crime and the future of his two young daughters, Steve Wimberley six years ago quit his veterinary practice in South Africa, flew to England and soon tracked down a new job in Portsmouth.
“It was a very nice job, in a very nice place,” he recalled.
But when he flew home to pack for the move, “I never could settle with it. I was so uneasy. The decision kept me up,” he said.
Finally, after a week of sleepless nights, staring out into what he called “the beautiful African night,” the fourth-generation South African abandoned his plans to emigrate.
“I decided my heart was here,” the 42-year-old recalled. “I’ve never regretted that decision for a minute.”
More than a decade after the end of apartheid, white South Africans still are weighing their future in a society where creating economic clout for the country’s long-repressed black majority has become the top national priority.
Under broad affirmative action programs, blacks are favored for the civil service jobs whites used to take for granted. White business people are obliged to hire black subcontractors, train black employees and sell shares of their companies to black co-owners or face losing government contracts.
The country’s black leaders are pushing for what a ruling African National Congress briefing paper calls a “critical mass of common culture and cultural practices.” Whites who fail to back the ANC’s transformation efforts and adapt to the country’s changing culture, leaders suggest, may ultimately no longer be considered South Africans.
For South Africa’s 4 million whites—many from centuries-old South African families or white communities that fled unwelcoming African countries such as Zimbabwe—the prospect of becoming unwelcome in the last white stronghold in Africa is chilling.
“There can be no more fundamental threat to a community’s sense of security than to declare them, even in a roundabout way, unwanted aliens in their own country,” Max du Preez, a white columnist for Johannesburg’s Star newspaper, wrote recently.
When President Robert Mugabe of neighboring Zimbabwe declares that his nation “is for black people, not white people,” and South Africa’s leaders fail to rebuke him, “this drives a red-hot poker through the hearts of white South Africans, especially those with no cultural, emotional or family links with any country outside Africa,” du Preez said.
Mbeki has said he believes Afrikaners and black Africans can work together because “they share common African roots and are tied to our country by an emotional bond.” That remarkable discovery of common ground with the ethnic group that spawned apartheid comes on the heels of a decision by the New National Party—the modern progeny of the hated apartheid National Party—to disband and fold itself into the ANC.
But while Afrikaners “are embracing the new South Africa and Africanism,” according to the ANC, English-speaking whites—including many active in the liberation struggle and now vocal in their criticism of the government—have been increasingly dismissed as racists, and as perhaps less-than-African.
“Mbeki is so delighted to have swallowed up the NNP that he’s embraced [Afrikaners] while the people who fought against apartheid are brushed aside with contempt,” Suzman said.
What worries many whites is that if the ANC’s undisputed power is genuinely threatened, the party could follow Mugabe’s lead and blame whites for the country’s failures in an effort to divert attention from anti-government discontent.
“We could quickly see the ANC resort to the old African style of eliminating the opposition. I think that’s a fairly realistic possibility down the line,” Wimberley acknowledged. “I’m pretty optimistic about this country, but you never know. Things could turn at any time.”
Most South African political analysts, however, say they believe such a scenario is very unlikely. South Africa, a much larger and more economically powerful nation than Zimbabwe, has a vibrant civil society, a strong independent news media and entrenched governmental institutions that so far serve as an effective check on the ANC administration.
Just as important, “everyone here can see what’s happening in Zimbabwe doesn’t solve a thing,” said van Zyl Slabbert, the Afrikaner political analyst. By attacking whites and other political opponents in an effort to cling to power, an increasingly unpopular Mugabe has instead driven his once-prosperous country to the brink of economic collapse.