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The Rainbow Nation

South African stereotypes are no simple black-and-white matter. Historically, the nation was made up of a number of widely different cultural groups that under normal circumstances might have amalgamated into a singular hybrid called "the South African." But the deeply divisive policy of apartheid only further entrenched initial differences, and while "affirmative action" policies, still in place 12 years after the dismantling of apartheid, were intended to redress the balance, they have ironically further highlighted the importance of race.

At a popular level, Mandela appeared as the architect of the post-1994 "nation-building," utilizing Desmond Tutu's "rainbow nation" to capture the hearts and minds of black and white South Africans alike. But despite the ANC government's stated objective to end racial discrimination and develop a unique South African identity, this "rainbow nation" remains difficult to define, let alone unify. Broadly speaking, approximately 76% of some 38 million people are black, 12.8% are white, 2.6% are Asian, and 8.5% are "coloured" (the apartheid term for those of mixed descent). Beyond these are smaller but no less significant groups, descendants of Lebanese, Italian, Portuguese, Hungarian, and Greek settlers, as well as the estimated 130,000-strong Jewish community. The latter has played an enormous role in the economic and political growth of South Africa, as seen at the Jewish Museum in Cape Town.

In an attempt to recognize the cultural diversity of South Africa, the government gave official recognition to 11 languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, Tsona, Pedi, Shangaan, and Ndebele. Television news and sports are broadcast in the four main language groups, English, Nguni (Zulu and Xhosa), Afrikaans, and Sotho. But while languages provide some clue to the demographics of the population, particularly where a specific language user is likely to live (another apartheid legacy), they give no real idea of the complexity of attitudes within groups. For instance, urban-born Xhosa males still paint their faces white to signal the circumcision rites that mark their transition to manhood, but unlike their rural counterparts, they may choose to be circumcised by a Western doctor. A group of Sotho women may invest their stokvel (an informal savings scheme) in unit trusts, while their mothers will not open a bank account. And an "ethnic" white Afrikaner living in rural Northern Cape is likely to have little in common with an Afrikaans-speaking coloured living in cosmopolitan Cape Town.

While life is better than it was under apartheid, and incidences of racial prejudice are now condemned in banner headlines, poverty and crime are the new oppressors. Even among the new black elite -- the so-called "black diamonds," typified by conspicuous consumption (and best observed striding through the previously whites-only shopping malls of Jozi) -- there are those who feel that the New South Africa is taking too long to deliver on its promises. "There is no black in the rainbow," an embittered Winnie Madikizela-Mandela said. "Maybe there is no rainbow nation at all." Hardly surprising, really. Despite the peaceful transition, years of fragmentation have rendered much of the nation cautious, suspicious, and critical. Many are still molded by the social-engineering experiment that separated them geographically and psychologically. But when our school-age youth stand up to sing their national anthem -- proudly singing the verses in three languages -- those old enough to remember the dark days of apartheid feel a thrill at new beginnings. A new, shared South African identity will take time to emerge -- enough, at least, for the colors to mingle.

The "Coloureds": Creation of a New "Race" -- Afrikaans-speaking people of mixed descent -- grouped together as a new race called the "coloureds" during the Population Registration Act, from 1950 to 1991 -- were perhaps the most affected by the policies of apartheid. They were brought up to respect their white blood and deny their black roots entirely, and the apartheid state's overture to the coloureds' white forefathers was to treat them as second in line to whites, providing them with a better education, greater rights, and more government support than black people (but substantially less than "pure" whites). These policies were even evident on Robben Island, where Indian and coloured inmates were given better food and clothing than the black prisoners, despite the fact that they were mostly close political comrades. The destruction of the coloured sense of self-worth was made evident when the New Nationalist Party (NNP) won the 1994 election race in the Western Cape (where the majority of coloureds reside). Voting back into power the same racist party that had created their oppressive new identity was seemingly a result of the false sense of hierarchy that apartheid created. Fear of die Swart Gevaar (an NP propaganda slogan meaning "the Black Danger") is slow to dissipate, and the increasingly Africanist policies of the ANC, in which "affirmative" positions are seen as being held for blacks only, does little to dispel them. Ideally, South Africans would heed the calls of those within the coloured ranks to do away with the label entirely, but as long as the majority believe that the coloureds are in a class of their own, this remains a pipe dream.

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