JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African writer Hagen Engler is candid about the inner racist he had to exorcise during his progression from a carefree youth who reaped the benefits of white minority rule to a man who has lived for 20 years under a black government.
The present-day Engler, his black wife and their mixed race child could easily be the poster family for the “Rainbow Nation” Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu dreamt of in 1994 when South Africa emerged from the ashes of apartheid as a new democracy.
Since then South Africans have largely put aside their racially divided past and presented a show of unity, be it to rally behind the mostly white national rugby team or the largely black soccer side during the country’s 2010 World Cup.
The same harmony was evident in the widespread outpouring of emotion after the death last December of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s much loved first black president.
“People understand each other,” Engler told Reuters. “We’re not necessarily all living together as one big happy family but we’ve got a better understanding of each other’s cultures.”
In his often irreverent book, “Marrying Black Girls for Guys Who Aren’t Black”, Engler looks at his journey from the youth whose privileged white background easily secured him his first job in journalism, while his black peers struggled.
He recounts his initial, unsettling 1990s encounters with young, self confident blacks who had grown up in exile and were returning to claim their stake in the new South Africa.
Years later, Engler accepts that the African National Congress’s black empowerment drive was necessary to steer the country forward.
“You couldn’t have just adopted a laissez-faire type of attitude and left people to their own devices after centuries of separation,” Engler said.
South Africa celebrates 20 years since the end of white-minority rule on Sunday as a more integrated society, albeit with racial tensions still bubbling beneath the surface.
Angry blacks still crammed in badly serviced townships have clashed with police during often violent protests, while some whites feel they are being unfairly punished through state policies aimed at correcting the imbalances of apartheid.
As South Africa braces for elections on May 7, there is widespread discontent directed at the ANC, the liberation party that many believe has failed to achieve the equality Mandela and his comrades fought for.
A census in 2011 showed that white South Africans still remain in control of Africa’s most advanced economy, with incomes for white households nearly six times above those of black families who constitute 80 percent of the population.
A report by South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations (IRR) last year showed that poverty among blacks was at 42 percent on average, against just one percent for whites. White males still occupy more of the chief executive positions in the country’s biggest companies.
Critics say the ANC is responsible for failing to improve the lot of blacks due to rampant corruption in its ranks, with legislation like the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment only benefiting a small clique with ties to the ruling party.
Lack of access to good education has also left many blacks ill-equipped to compete against their white and Asian counterparts on the job market.
Archbishop Tutu, a champion of South Africa’s struggle for democracy, believes South Africans should be proud of the relative stability achieved in the country since 1994.
“We’ve notched up a very significant milestone without significant turbulence. South Africans should celebrate proudly,” Tutu said this week.
However, he has also been fiercely critical of current President Jacob Zuma’s administration, saying it has failed to fulfill the promise of a prosperous South Africa for all.
“But I had imagined at this time we would be cheering our young people. Watching the new generation of leaders, cheering them from the sidelines as they were accomplishing the things we had all dreamt about,” he added.
“We dreamt about a society that really made people feel they mattered. You can’t do that in a society where people go to bed hungry. When you have many of our children still attending classes under trees. We missed out on opportunities.”
As a result of the racial disparities, tensions have simmered under the surface, occasionally boiling over when the strain of coexistence becomes too much.
The release of four young white men jailed for beating a black homeless man to death in 2011 triggered outrage earlier this year, with some angry South Africans commenting on social media that this was another example of a justice system that still favored whites.
A few weeks after exchanging hugs with her white neighbor in mutual sorrow over Mandela’s death, Thabiso Mlangeni was embroiled in a road rage incident which degenerated into an exchange of racial insults with the other driver.
“I was at fault, but before I could apologize, he stunned me with the K-word,” recalled Mlangeni, a Johannesburg doctor, alluding to the derogatory term “kaffir” used to refer to blacks during apartheid.
“I’m afraid I retaliated with a slur of my own,” she added with a grimace.
The IRR says 58 percent of South Africans felt confident in a happy future for all races in 2012. But only 39 percent believed race relations were improving, compared to 72 percent in 2000.
But it’s not all bad, says Georgina Alexander, a researcher for politics and government at the institute.
“Race relations are not as bad as some of the racial incidents we have seen, make us think. On average most South Africans live alongside each other in a relatively civil and peaceful way.”
Engler also is cautiously optimistic about the future of the country he hopes his daughter can grow up and thrive in.
“I’m a glass half full type of guy and I think we’ve definitely come a long way,” he says.
“It’s just a case of how long it’s going to take to reach a state of economic equity, which is the main stumbling block at the moment. That’s gonna take some resolving.”
Editing by Joe Brock and Giles Elgood