JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Two models at the eye of a race storm that has exposed the thin veneer of social harmony in South Africa 18 years after the end of apartheid shook hands on Thursday and vowed to work towards Nelson Mandela’s vision of a non-racial “Rainbow Nation”.
The brouhaha erupted last week when 20-year-old blonde Jessica Leandra dos Santos - voted ‘2011 Model of the Year’ by readers of men’s magazine FHM - tweeted about an “arrogant and disrespectful kaffir” she had encountered at a supermarket.
The apartheid-era slang for black person, which originally comes from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’, is considered extremely offensive in South Africa, where media refer to it only as the ‘K-word’.
A few days later, 20-year-old aspirant black model Tshidi Thamana responded with a Twitter post saying that if “all white people were killed”, blacks wouldn’t have to put up with racial abuse from the likes of dos Santos.
She also referred to an anti-apartheid song called “Shoot the Boer (white farmer)” popularized by Julius Malema, until recently the radical leader of the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress.
Both comments sparked outrage on the Internet, in newspapers and on radio talk shows from public and politicians alike, while sponsors quickly ditched dos Santos.
The opposition Democratic Alliance, perceived as the party of white privilege, also jumped at the chance to burnish its multi-racial credentials by having its black spokesman, Mmusi Maimane, host a reconciliation breakfast between the pair.
“We know what we did was wrong,” Thamana told a scrum of reporters and photographers at Maimane’s home, before posing all smiles with her arm on her adversary’s shoulder.
A contrite dos Santos offered her “sincere apologies” and said she would be working at “getting the country back to where it was a week ago”.
Although Internet wags dubbed the spat a ‘Tempest in a D-cup’ between two people too young to recall the white-minority rule that ended in 1994, it has served as a harsh reminder of the inequalities that persist between blacks, who make up 80 percent of South Africa’s 49 million people, and the 10-percent white minority.
According to Statistics South Africa, 29 percent of blacks are unemployed compared with 5.9 percent of whites, while IHS Global Insight, an economic consultancy, estimates that whites have an average income nearly seven times that of blacks.
Reporting by Ed Cropley, editing by Paul Casciato