JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — While South Africa has made enormous strides in the struggle to overcome racial discrimination, efforts in other parts of the world, like Arizona, are losing ground.
It’s amazing what South Africans have achieved since the apartheid ended 16 years ago: There is, of course, no longer forced segregation of blacks and whites, and today black politicians hold many of the country’s highest offices, including the presidency.
It’s true that the white population — which accounts for roughly 9 million of the almost 50 million people in South Africa — still controls sectors of the economy, and it is common to see whites clustered together in communities and commercial centers. On average, their incomes are much higher than those of other segments of the population. But during a two-week stay in South Africa, I didn’t see serious tensions between blacks and whites. On the contrary, I got the impression that people get along quite well.
The harmony and enthusiasm that have pervaded South Africa since the World Cup began earlier this month almost make us forget that, 20 years ago, this country was on the brink of civil war.
South Africans had to choose between violence and negotiation. And they chose the latter.
It wasn’t easy. Nelson Mandela negotiated from prison with then-President P.W. Botha, and after he was freed, with F. W. De Klerk. This ultimately led to the end of apartheid and the first elections in which the black population was permitted to take part, on April 27, 1994. Today, April 27 is celebrated as the Day of Freedom.
“Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” said Mandela in his 1994 inaugural address. And so it has been since then.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu conceded in an interview, discrimination hasn’t disappeared completely. But the progress achieved so far is both impressive and irrevocable.
The South African conscience that dictates that discrimination must not be tolerated — much less legalized — doesn’t seem to exist in parts of the U.S.
Do the people of Arizona see what has happened in South Africa?
Arizona’s new immigration policy, signed into law in April, only serves to foster the kind of racial prejudice that the South Africans rejected nearly a generation ago. The law subjects immigrants and Latinos to stricter police inspections based solely on the discretion of law enforcement — which, in practice, means on the basis of their color or accent. If a similar law were passed in South Africa today, it would set off protests and riots around the world.
The answer to the U.S.’s immense immigration problem is not to discriminate against an entire segment of the population. Nor is it to create the equivalent of an apartheid system in Arizona. On the contrary, the solution can be found by following South Africa’s example: discarding unjust laws and integrating the whole population, without exceptions, into a single system.
If South Africa was able to overcome a long and dark past of racial discrimination, through tolerance and negotiation, Arizona can do the same. The concept of South Africa as a “rainbow nation” can and should be exported to other countries: South Africa’s successes can be repeated in Arizona — and Texas, and California, and throughout the United States.
There is a great deal to learn from South Africa during this World Cup, and from the nation’s moral leader, Nelson Mandela.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela famously said during a ceremony honoring the Brazilian football star Pele. “It is more powerful than governments in breaking down the racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
I am not turning a blind eye toward the significant differences that still exist between whites and blacks in South Africa. But despite these differences, South Africans have worked tirelessly to build one country, out of what was once a nation divided by race, culture, social status, language and ethnicity. They have overcome so many of their differences, and nowhere is that more evident than at this year’s World Cup.
Arizona, are you listening?
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
(Jun 8, 2010)