Mbeki encourages debate on racism and defends government's policies


To encourage debate on racism and to embolden those who differed with his government, President Thabo Mbeki yesterday paraphrased Mao Zedong's exhortation: "Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools of thought contend."

He was delivering the opening address at a four-day national conference on racism, which is, he told delegates who crammed into a new convention centre in Greater Johannesburg, "one of the most contentious issues on our national agenda". Mr Mbeki conceded there are South Africans, most of them white, who feel that debate on racism heightens race consciousness and thereby helps to perpetuate racial divisions.

As if in response to his invitation to voice critical views, about 40 members of the conservative and predominantly white Mine workers Union held a placard demonstration outside the convention hall.

They were protesting against the government policy of affirmative action which gives preference to black miners to compensate for their past status as victims of race discrimination.

While noting the contention of those who fear discussion of racism aggravates the problem, Mr Mbeki disagreed.

He quoted several arguments, including the belief that those who want racism removed from the national agenda are prompted by a desire to preserve the status quo and, with it the benefits and privileges which accrued to them during white rule.

Underlying Mr Mbeki's thesis on racism in South Africa were several central pillars:

That historically blacks have been victims rather than perpetrators of racism;

That the contemporary problem is primarily white anti-black racism (though no tolerance should be accorded to black anti-white racism);

That apartheid was a "latter-day manifestation" of the crime against humanity that Nazism had perpetrated in Europe;

That the major responsibility for ending racism rests with whites.

Urging debate on his thesis, Mr Mbeki, a former member of the South African Communist Party's central committee, echoed Mao's exhortation in 1956-1957 to those opposed to him (and, by implication, the rigid, regimenting authority of the Chinese Communist Party) to express their thoughts openly.

Reuters adds:

A black South African girl accused of stealing from a white-owned store in the conservative town of Louis Trichardt was taken to the back of the shop and painted white from the waist up, police said yesterday. "The girl, aged 14, walked into a store on Tuesday looking for something to buy when she was confronted by the white female manager, Ms Thelma Strydom, who accused her of stealing," a police spokesman said.

"She was then joined by two black workers and it is our understanding that she allegedly ordered them to paint the girl, so they took off her blouse, took her to a back room, and painted her white from the waist up."

The girl then walked to the nearest police station to report the incident. "We then arrested Ms Strydom and a female worker named Ms Julia Munyai and today we arrested the other shop worker who was allegedly involved, who is a man."