South Africa Still Grapples With Race

As South Africa prepares to open a global racism conference in Durban, the country that witnessed the birth and death of apartheid is still struggling to move beyond its disturbing past.

Seven years after shedding a political system based on the fundamental assumption of white superiority, South Africa has held two successful elections, but the dream of an egalitarian society remains distant.

Along with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki is due on Friday to open the eight-day conference, which has gathered nearly 6,000 delegates from 150 countries.

Although the delegates will attempt to arrive at a declaration of principles and a plan of action to tackle racism, most experts believe it may be a contentious affair.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, many U.N. member nations have voiced concerns over an internationally recognized definition of racism.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will not attend the conference in a show of U.S. anger at attempts by several Arab nations to brand Israel a racist nation for its recent targeting of Palestinians.

While many African countries have demanded an apology for the slave trade that enriched many parts of the West until the 19th century, the United States and Europe have ruled out an apology, fearing exposure to lawsuits.

The developing world has had its bones of contention, as well. Despite pleas from human rights activists, the Indian government has refused to allow the ancient system of caste to be included in the rubric of racism.

Rainbow Nation

As the delegates struggle to arrive at an internationally approved means of protecting ethnic and minority rights, Mbeki's "rainbow nation" is very likely to be held up as an example after its peaceful overthrow of apartheid.

The South African ideal was publicly articulated on May 8, 1996, in a historic speech by then-President Nelson Mandela. "Now I can see the Rainbow Nation rising," said Mandela, to a euphoric response.

But seven years after the fall of apartheid, many South Africans believe Mandela's vision of the new South Africa remains a distant dream.

"The very nature of our society has been race-determined for a very long time," Barney Pityana, chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission, told ABCNEWS. "And today, seven years down the line, it is no different."

Where Are the Whites?

Many neighborhoods in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest and arguably the most crime-infested city, bear testimony to the colossal social problems still facing the nation.

The white South African population has deserted downtown Johannesburg, leaving it to throngs of poor blacks, sidewalk vendors and gangsters.

Kort Street, a bustling commercial street in the center of Johannesburg, in many ways looks like the ideal of a rainbow nation. Indians, Africans and even the odd Chinese businessman offer their wares and services in what looks like a teeming tapestry of skin colors — black, brown, tan and every shade in between.

The only thing missing on Kort Street is whites.

White South Africans who do visit Kort Street do so because they are forced to, since they work in the courts on the street. But they congregate in trendy bars and restaurants a world away from the hubbub of the street outside.

A Racist vs. a Separatist

Marie Van Heeren, one of the few white businessmen left on Kort Street, told ABCNEWS that he was a "separatist" — not a racist.

For Van Heeren, there were stark differences between the two terms. "A separatist is somebody who wants the best for his own people, but he also wants the best for everyone else," he said. "He just believes it's achieved on different lines."

In many ways, separatism is the spirit haunting many parts of South Africa. Although the country's public schools have been integrated, the student population is predominantly white, a testimony to the fact that many white South African parents who can afford it, choose to send their children to private schools.

The system of apartheid, many experts believe, has simply adapted to the times. "White South Africans are no longer allowed to practice racism openly, like in the past," said Rich Mkhondo, an executive for South African Airways. "Now, they are more subtle."

Allegations of racism run both ways in South Africa these days. At a conference on racism organized by the South African Human Rights Commission in August 2000, there were few white delegates and black participants gave alarming stories of racial hatred and abuse still suffered from white neighbors and employers.

For their part, white South Africans complain of reverse racism in Mbeki's hiring policy.

ABCNEWS' Jim Wooten in Johannesburg, South Africa contributed to this report.