The past that haunts South Africa: Race riots, murder confessions test multi-racial society's fragile fabric.


THESE ARE TRYING times for South Africa. The country is experiencing racial unrest on a scale unprecedented since the advent of majority rule in 1994. Meanwhile, confessions by five white policemen that they brutally tortured and murdered black consciousness activist Steve Biko in 1977 have opened old wounds. And the white minority is increasingly restive because rampant crimes -- ranging from burglaries and rapes to car-jackings and murders -- have invaded their privileged neighborhoods.

In all of these cases, the past has come to haunt the new South Africa.

For example, the rioting in a mixed-race Johannesburg neighborhood is a direct consequence of the multi-tier system created during nearly half-century of apartheid rule. While perceived inequities in utility rates provided the flash point, the unrest underscores the suspicion of many "coloreds" -- as South Africa's mixed-race people are called -- that they will end up suffering under the black-led government just as they did under apartheid. "We were [with the blacks] in the struggle but they aren't thinking about that now," complained a colored painter. "The blacks are turning white and they are leaving us behind."

The riots, which led to the death of several persons, come at a time when South Africa is trying to recover from the shock about the Biko murder disclosures. The white policemen's confessions confirmed what anti-apartheid activists had always suspected. But having the statements on paper provided ammunition to those who demand that officials guilty of criminal acts under apartheid ought to be tried and not pardoned.

The Biko revelations are particularly potent in increasing tensions among rival black ideological groups. As a black consciousness leader, Mr. Biko advocated black power and thus was an opponent of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, an umbrella organization that strives for non-racialism. Twenty years after his murder, Mr. Biko is seen by blacks unhappy about the ANC government as a prophet who told which way South Africa should go.

Under President Mandela, majority-ruled South Africa so far has been an astonishing success story. But recent events underscore the fragility of the fabric of its new society.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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