Whites weigh comfort and race in new South Africa

Sun Special Report

October 14, 2007|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun foreign reporter

PRETORIA, South Africa -- The vicious rumor at the Afrikaans Boys High School earlier this year went like this: Upon the death of Nelson Mandela, an underground army organized by the black-led ruling political party would rise up and kill whites across South Africa in belated revenge for decades of apartheid oppression.

Among white students at this school that once educated the sons of apartheid-era presidents and prime minsters, the improbable scenario took on a name, Operation White Cleanup. "I think it's just a rumor," said Wian Prinsloo, 16, "but it shows how afraid people are."

That fear - of crime, affirmative action, lost privilege, a government deemed hostile - is one factor behind an exodus of whites to Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere. Since apartheid ended 13 years ago, the white population has fallen by a quarter, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations. That would give whites 8 percent of the population of 47 million, their lowest share in decades, and down from more than 10 percent a decade ago.

Wian, still in 11th grade, already wants to move overseas, too, despite a comfortable upper-middle-class life. "I just don't think we can survive here," he said. "It feels like the blacks in this country are trying to get us to leave."

He is part of the post-apartheid generation that has come of age since apartheid's demise - young people who are largely, though not entirely, free of the emotional baggage their parents carry. They are known as Mandela's Children for the jailed anti-apartheid hero who became South Africa's president in 1994.

Mandela, 89 and frail, has long dreamed of a "nonracial" society in which youth across the racial spectrum would help cement the tenuous bonds of equality. But if whites keep leaving, that dream could wither.

Although there appear to be no surveys focused on young whites, pessimism is hardly universal. Steffan van Heerden, also 16, is upbeat about the country. He and his family went to the U.S. in 1994 for work but are now happy to be back in South Africa - for good, they hope.

Another young white South African, 22-year-old John Botha, recently returned from America as well. Now working on a game farm, he falls in the middle: cautiously optimistic yet not sure he can build a life here.

Together, the trio reflect the varied views young whites have toward a land that whites have inhabited since the 1650s. Descendants of those first Dutch settlers feel thoroughly African. They call themselves Afrikaners and speak a unique tongue, Afrikaans. But many have left Africa.

At the moment, departing whites far exceed the trickle of returnees. The unknown - and unknowable - question is how these trends may shift as today's youngsters grow up and decide where and how to live.

Frans Cronje, who researched white emigration for the race relations institute, predicts that the current course may well continue. His analysis disputes official figures, suggesting that a smaller 14 percent drop in the white population occurred mostly in the early 1990s. Ominously, he says, many who have left lately are just in their 20s and 30s.

"We've created this rainbow nation, but a lot of that rainbow is running away," he said. "Fifty years in the future, South Africa's white population could be 2 or 3 percent of the national population. I'd be surprised if it was that much."

Government leaders rarely talk about the size of the white population. About the only time they do acknowledge it is in connection with the nation's skills shortage. Because apartheid left whites generally well-educated, those who leave often take valuable skills in engineering and other fields.

On the surface, it's hard to see why the Prinsloos would feel anything but content. They have a large home filled with nice things. Willem Prinsloo is a well-paid orthopedic surgeon; his wife, Riana, keeps the practice's books. Wian attends one of the best high schools around. His older brother Dirk, 20, studies at the University of Pretoria.

Their high standard of living mirrors the good fortunes of many whites. Their pessimism also mirrors white attitudes. Only 45 percent of whites feel positive about the country's future, according to a poll by TNS Research Surveys - well below the 75 percent of blacks who do.

A major factor is crime. South Africa's murder rate is eight times that of the U.S., with 50 killings a day. Most victims are poor and black, but violent crimes, including carjackings and home invasions, are common in largely white areas. In March, 70 percent of whites living in big cities told pollsters that crime had gotten worse.

Wian and his mother were held up at gunpoint in a hotel room while vacationing in Cape Town. In Pretoria, crime has hit close to home. A friend of Riana Prinsloo was shot to death last year, and this year the 23-year-old son of one of Willem Prinsloo's colleagues was murdered outside his home.

"You hear about these things all the time," said Wian.

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