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
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,
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