JOHANNESBURG: As South Africa prepares for life without the father of the Rainbow Nation, some members of the once-ruling white minority fear Nelson Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation may fade after his death.
When apartheid ended nearly two decades ago, many whites braced for the worst. Conditioned for years to be wary of the “swart gevaar” — black threat — they feared being thrown into the sea.
That prophecy never materialized.
When he became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, Nelson Mandela closed a dark chapter of his life in prison and reached out to his former oppressors to the point of having tea with the widow of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.
With the father of democratic South Africa now fighting for his life in hospital, wild rumors have been flying around the Internet about what life will be like without Mandela for the white population.
“The death of Mandela could mark a turning point toward disaster,” according to one article posted on the Facebook page of a group calling itself “Save the white people in South Africa”.
AfriForum, a non-profit organization that represents the interests of white Afrikaners, has received phone calls from people asking: “What’s going to happen? Should they be afraid?” said its deputy chief executive Ernst Roets.
“We see people, especially on social media, saying things like ‘if Mandela dies, they will kill all white people’,” he said.
But their investigations find these warnings to be baseless.
“We don’t think there is any reason to have that fear,” Roets said.
For Esmi, a 47-year-old Afrikaner who stopped by the Pretoria hospital where Mandela is being treated, fears of blacks turning on whites after Mandela is gone are the least of her worries.
“That hasn’t even crossed my mind,” she said.
“Everyone is so focused on Mandela. I’ve got the same feeling as during the soccer in 2010 when we were all as one together. The atmosphere is more somber but we are all for Mandela because he was good for our country.”
The ruling African National Congress has also sought to calm any jitters, noting that Mandela left public office more than a decade ago and the country has not fallen into disarray.
“All the policy positions of the ANC speak to this progressive thinking of the ANC, there is nothing that says whites will be thrown into the sea,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told The New Age daily.
Weakened by age and his 27 years in prison, Mandela has not appeared in public for three years, which encourages hope that his eventual passing will not unleash racial tensions.
“I don’t think there is anything to worry about,” said Sherwin van Blerk, development manager of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). “We are an open society. We are a great democracy.”
A bigger concern is wealth inequalities, van Blerk said.
But the line between the two is not clear. The average income of a white household is six times that of a black household, according to the latest census.
The two communities do mix but to a limited extent. Rampant crime breeds mistrust. While most of the 43 murders that happen daily take place mainly in black townships, whites are shocked by the violent burglaries in their neighbourhoods and the occasional killing of white farmers.
Independent political analyst Olmo von Meijenfeldt said fears can be fed by the “lack of a conciliatory voice at the top of the establishment”.
Although President Jacob Zuma has given up singing a popular struggle song “give me my machine gun”, he still sparked controversy in December when he suggested that keeping dogs was part of white culture.
With Mandela in critical condition on life support, calls are growing for his legacy of peace and tolerance to be safeguarded for future generations.
“I am not fearing for my life,” said Natalie, who lives in the country’s remote northeast. “But I am worrying for his legacy. People in power don’t care about reconciliation.”