Afrikaners' sons prepare for less power, opportunity

March 07, 2006|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Between classes at Afrikaans Boys High School, students in their shorts, neckties and blazers chatter and laugh, their conversations in Afrikaans echoing off brick arches and across a courtyard.

High on one wall hangs the school logo: a sun shining down on an ox wagon of the kind ridden by some of the students' forebears during the Great Trek of the 1830s, when Afrikaners moved deeper into the country to defend their ideas of white dominance.

Once meant to groom privileged boys to run a nation, Afrikaans Boys High now teaches that they will have to work harder to succeed. Twelve years after the arrival of democracy, the opportunities in government and business that used to be reserved for whites - Afrikaners as well as those of British descent - are greatly reduced.

South Africa's government aggressively presses companies to hire more black employees and to bring aboard black owners. Quotas limit the number of public university slots open to whites.

"It's sort of payback time," says Principal Pierre Edwards, who attended the high school in the late 1960s. "It was a white man's world when I was here. You had your future mapped out. There were no limits.

"The only thing that has changed is the privileged group is black, but we are still a racialist society," he says. "You can go sit under a tree and cry, or do something about it. Our philosophy is, `Let's do something about it.'"

Doing something is the clear intention of students such as 11th-grader Gottfried Rautenbach, an aspiring accountant. Like many of his peers, he considers affirmative action an unfair obstacle, because he was a child when apartheid ended. He thinks his generation deserves immunity from the corrective policies.

"Things are not going to change because I say it's wrong," he says. "It only makes me feel I have to work harder to achieve what I want to achieve."

About 250,000 whites have emigrated since 1994, a course of action with little appeal to him. "I know people are leaving at quite a high rate," Rautenbach says. "Personally I don't want to leave. I'm proudly South African. I want to stay."

Many South Africans have a pronounced lack of sympathy for whites who complain about unfairness.

"A lot of this is what I would argue is people being used to privilege that was unfair, as opposed to people suffering actual disadvantage," says Neva Magketla, an economist at the Congress of South African Trade Unions, whose membership is mostly black. "There is a leveling of the playing field, and they're not used to it."

Whites account for nearly 10 percent of South Africa's population of 47 million people. Just over half the whites are Afrikaners - descendants of Dutch and French settlers, who speak Afrikaans and who dominated the country's politics after World War II. The rest trace their roots to Britain and historically held sway over gold and diamond mines.

Apartheid-era government reserved the best jobs for whites and made the civil service a bastion of Afrikanerdom. Laws made it easy for whites of all backgrounds to live well on the backs of cheap black labor, and the effects of that system are still felt.

South Africa's whites remain far better off economically than most blacks, by every measure of income and housing. Although a black person would probably be hired over an equally qualified white person, Magketla says, whites such as the students at Afrikaans Boys High have access to better schools and business contacts through friends and family.

She points to statistics showing that 10 percent of college-educated blacks younger than 35 are unemployed, compared with just 1 percent of whites. Nationwide, the jobless rate among all blacks is close to 40 percent; for whites it hovers near 7 percent.

Critics of affirmative action say the government is unwisely squeezing white workers, in the name of "black economic empowerment," by requiring companies to boost black employment and ownership if they want to do business with the country's large public sector. Hiring should be based on merit, the critics say, and public education improved so that black South Africans can better compete for jobs.

"If you decide for reasons of righting historical injustices that you want to practice a discriminatory policy, there is a price to be paid," says John Kane-Berman, who directs the South African Institute of Race Relations.

That price, he said, is continued white emigration, further depletion of needed skills and lasting damage to former President Nelson Mandela's dream of a nonracial "rainbow nation."

Anxiety about the future mixes with a strong-jawed determination at Afrikaans Boys High, known as Affies.

"To me it is a concern that even my children might be seen by some as still part of the oppressor generation," says Michael Prinsloo, an 11th-grader who plays rugby, debates and sings bass in the choir. "How do you judge whether the healing process has been going on long enough?"

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