Racism Is Becoming Less of a Concern for Most S. Africans ; the UN World Conference on Racism Opens Today in the Nation It Once Censured

Article excerpt

As 6,000 delegates and 14 heads of state converge in this muggy coastal city to talk about racism, there is a particular irony. It's the first time the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance will make its keynote something other than South Africa's government.

This is a country that essentially defined racism. For nearly 50 years, the white-minority government outlawed black-rights movements and interracial marriage, enforced segregation in all sectors, and perpetuated a system in which whites controlled virtually all commercial land and industry. The past two conferences, in 1978 and 1983, vilified South Africa's government, labeling apartheid a crime against humanity.

Now, seven years after the end of apartheid, a new study shows how far this society has come in righting itself. According to a new study conducted by the Institute for Race Relations, the majority of South Africans rank racism as only the ninth most important problem facing the country, after unemployment, crime, and homelessness.

Of the more than 2,000 respondents, drawn from a cross-section of South African society, nearly half said race issues were becoming less of a concern, a quarter - mostly the white Afrikaans population - saying racism is getting worse.

"At the level of ordinary people (maybe not the intelligencia or politicians) ... the vast majority of people think things are getting better," says Lawrence Schlemmer, the sociologist who conducted the study. "That was enormously heartening to me."

"The South African experience is something we can share with the world, both the negative and the positive," says Jody Kollapen, a commissioner on South Africa's Human Rights Commission (HRC). "We can show what we've done - and are still doing - to overcome racism, but also indicate to them the challenges that we face and that may come back to haunt our democracy."

This nation of 43 million has a long road ahead, however. Black unemployment remains around 50 percent, crime rates rival those of the world's biggest cities, and and the past year alone has seen a number of high-profile acts of racism by whites.

Last November, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned television company, sparked international outrage when they aired footage of police setting dogs on three Mozambican immigrants. …