Thomas Sowell, the American economist and philosopher, said that the word “racism” is very much like ketchup: “It can be put on practically anything – and demanding evidence makes you a racist.”
This statement probably rings truer for South Africa than for the USA. In South Africa, racism is generally perceived to be the worst insult imaginable. At the same time, however, it is a term that is flung to and frow as if it only has very little meaning.
Racism is like a cancer that feeds on peaceful co-existence, mutual recognition and social cohesion. It should not only be fought, but should be eradicated.
The ANC’s idea that racism should be dealt with more severely does initially sound like a good idea worthy of support. However, if studied more closely, it becomes clear that the ANC’s plan is a very bad idea – and one that AfriForum will oppose.
It is indeed true that racism should be addressed. The problem, however, is that the ANC – with its attempt to criminalise racism to the effect that you could go to jail if you make yourself guilty of racist behaviour – will exacerbate the situation rather than solve the problem. Although the bill has not yet been made public and we cannot therefore discuss the details, what we already do know warrants fierce criticism.
In a media statement I have already explained that this bill to a large extent resembles the previous regime’s Suppression of Communism Act, 1950 (Act No 44 of 1950) – an Act which the ANC in the 1970s held as one of the most significant reasons that Apartheid should have been declared a crime against humanity. This is however not the beginning. There are at least 15 more reasons why this bill is a very bad idea:
1. In the first place, history the world over have proven that more government regulation is generally not a good idea. This is especially true where social issues are at stake. Racism is something that should be solved between communities. Government do play a role, but regulating it with an iron fist will only increase tensions.
2. A recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) indicates that racism for South Africans at ground level is not such a major crisis as Government or commentators would like everyone to think it is. This study found that only 4,7% of all South Africans perceive racism to be the country’s greatest unresolved crises. In contrast, 55,9% of South Africans see unemployment as a serious unresolved crisis.
3. Racism is therefore rather a symptom of other, larger crises. These include: crime; deterioration of the State; economic decline; inappropriate government spending; poor political leadership; and the risk of being downgraded to junk status. If these crises are resolved, racism will also decrease naturally.
4. This bill is championed during an election year. A reasonable person may accept that the ANC sees the project as something of value to its election campaign. A gigantic question mark therefore hangs over the ANC’s underlying motive with this effort. A party-political motive will lead to inconsistent application.
5. The ANC proved that it is unable to make a distinction between party and state. When Government applies this new act, it will by implication be applied by ANC officials who have to follow a specific political mandate and agenda. The ANC cannot be trusted to handle a high-risk project like this in an objective fashion.
6. South Africa is a plural, diverse democracy (or at least attempts to be) that comprises diverse communities, racial and cultural groups. The one group in this debate has the political power, not because the group is more correct, but because they are more numerous. The ANC makes it clear in its so-called Strategy and Tactics documents that it wants to be a liberation movement for black South Africans and that government institutions should be utilised to achieve this aim. If the ANC is given the authority to micromanage something such as racism, the party (or rather, the liberation movement, as it calls itself) will at the same time be role-player as well as referee.
7. The ANC has proven repeatedly that it is unable or unwilling to address gross racism in its own ranks. Various examples have already been given. If racist commentary is indeed declared a crime for which imprisonment can be imposed and it is applied consistently, a number of prominent government officials, including cabinet ministers, would have to be imprisoned.
8. The ANC has also made known its distorted perception about minority rights when President Zuma declared in Parliament: “We have more rights because we are the majority. You have less rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that is how democracy works.” If this statement is an indication of how the ANC will approach the fight against racism, double standards will prevail and black South Africans will enjoy a greater degree of freedom to act racist towards white people as vice versa. Double standards in the fight against racism will inevitably lead to an increase in racism.
9. Until now, there has been no consultation about this process – at least not with AfriForum, who represents more than 170 000 families in the minority community. It therefore seems that this process is not only politically motivated, but is also one-sided. The party who champions the bill has its own agenda and does not go to too much trouble to seek the opinions of other role-players.
10. The regulation of racism is a reactionary action that clearly points to the radicalisation of the political discourse in Parliament. It seems as if the ANC wants to “out-EFF” the EFF, and that it is a political positioning exercise to the ANC rather than an attempt with noble intentions. The ANC’s tactful handling of the racist commentary earlier this year, clearly designed to get to political opponents, supports this perception.
11. The micromanagement of social issues is a form of totalitarian actions that are inconsistent with democracy. It causes red lights to flash for South Africa’s future, and may be seen as an indication that South Africa enters an era of limited freedom. Scenario analysts like Frans Cronje, Clem Sunter and R.W. Johnson have been cautioning against this possibility for a long time.
12. Hate speech and racial discrimination are already addressed in the Constitution and the Equality Act (PEPUDA). Inciting violence is already a crime. Current legislation is therefore in place to address specific forms of racism within a legal framework. The bill seems to be superfluous.
13. If the bill do make any contribution not yet addressed by legislation, it will most probably be to criminalise comments that simply hurt people’s feelings. It will constitute a violation of a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution.
14. Philosophers and political commentators have been warning against the so-called “democratic paradox” for some time now. Samuel Huntington describes it as a phenomenon where democratic institutions (such as Parliament) are used by a democratically-elected majority party to perform undemocratic acts. This bill will make South Africa the flagship example of the democratic paradox.
15. Research organisation the world over have again and again found that issues such as racism, hate speech and even genocide incitement cannot be fought with legislation. The most sensible solution is that leaders and credible voices from the different communities should take a stand among their followers to lead people in this way to a solution of mutual recognition and respect. AfriForum is willing to play this role in the Afrikaner community. The ANC and other organisers who claim to represent black aspirations will have to play the same role in these communities.
AfriForum and the ANC recently held talks to solve campus violence – despite serious differences between these two organisations. The results of these talks were sensible and defused the crisis at South African universities. Although racism is not South Africa’s greatest crisis – as the SAIRR research indicates – it remains a serious one. AfriForum wants to enter into sincere talks and sensible thinking scrums with Government.
If people are jailed left, right and centre, it will most surely not bring the country closer to a solution.
Ernst Roets is Deputy CEO of AfriForum. He can be followed on Twitter at @ernstroets
This article first appeared on AfriForum.co.za