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Gabriella Sacramone-Lutz

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The Murder of Eugene Terreblanche and the State of South African Race Relations

Posted: 04/06/10 01:45 PM ET

I sat, earlier this week, in a back room in my hometown in upstate New York informally presenting my experiences in South Africa to town leaders. They -- a hardware store owner, travel agent, and three retired teachers -- wanted to know if "everything was really okay between the blacks and the whites." The killing on Saturday of Eugene Terreblanche, a white supremacist leader, by two black employees, mandates us to look at this issue in a period when the World Cup and political spectacle has perhaps eclipsed this very basic question.

Early reports have indicated it was a dispute over wages that led the two suspects, aged 28 and 15, to bludgeon Terreblanche to death while he took an afternoon nap. Farm conditions are notoriously bad, evidenced by the fact that a 15 year old was even a laborer to begin with. Although it is hard to find reliable estimates, it is true that the murder of a white farmer by black laborers is not an isolated phenomenon. But this impetus could also be fueled by a lifetime of relative deprivation even after the transition from apartheid promised a better life, and the ANC pledged to help "the poorest of the poor". So why have so many decried the increase in racial tension?

Major figures in South Africa have contributed to a political circus of late, and many fear the surreal nature of these public spectacles will only increase. Julius Malema, Youth League President of the ANC, consistently makes statements so absurd that they seem ready made to insert into a political cartoon. At his worst he is inflammatory, and most recently a court ruled that his singing of a struggle song with the lyric "shoot the boer (farmer)" qualified as hate speech. (Zuma's campaigning to the tune of "Bring Me My Machine Gun" did not set a strong example in this regard). Reactions to Malema's antics reveal widespread insecurity and fear about the future of South African politics and the decline of the ANC. His mention in nearly every article about the murder is further evidence that people feel he is dangerous and to blame for inciting violence.

Fear is also stoked by the experience of neighbor Zimbabwe, where land reform was poorly executed and "land grabs" by black laborers have resulted in white flight and a lack of faith in the state to carry out rational policies or the justice system to combat impunity. White flight has also occurred in South Africa. Due, on the surface, to rising crime rates and lack of economic opportunities, some may speculate about the lack of confidence in black governance.

Declining trust in the government, however, is not a white phenomenon. Interpreting their yearly nationwide public opinion survey for 2009, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation concluded that while race relations have recently remained static, confidence in public institutions and trust in political leadership is on the decline across the board. The South African government is rapidly losing the confidence of its people in its will or ability to provide them with the basic services promised under the 1994 constitution. This is also evidenced by increasing numbers of service delivery protests.

While this data may not measure the complexities of political compromise, it certainly makes a strong statement that South African leaders and major media events are unrepresentative of citizen priorities.

This is somewhat paradoxical: while inflammatory rhetoric is on the rise, race relations are consistent as a whole. The problem is that these two forces, leaders with a dose of celebrity and citizens with underexpressed priorities, act to shape one another and cannot drift wider apart indefinitely. Polarizing citizens according to race is an attempt to break a strong, non-racial consensus that the government desperately needs to improve performance. The question is in which direction will the country be pulled. South Africans must find some way to reorient their government to their concerns and away from distracting performances by politicians.

Race is the most easily understood dimension of South Africa for Americans, but it does not explain strain in South Africa today. Racial tensions are not the fuel waiting to be ignited by a symbolic murder. The frustration over lack of progress on structural transformation, however, is providing ample amounts of rage. This rage can either become a tool for destruction or for increased pressure on the government to make good on their promises to provide a better life.