Racism has been and will probably continue to be a contentious issue in South Africa for a long time. Looking back at 2016 – if one were to evaluate South Africa on news reports only – it is not hard to reach the conclusion that racism in South Africa is a problem of white people being overwhelmingly racist toward black people, while black people are usually the innocent victims of racism.
Off the top of my head I can easily count up to ten white racists who have reached the headlines of South African media, but I can hardly think of any black racists who have reached the same level of condemnation.
About a week ago, there were two especially noteworthy stories on the topic of racism that hit the news, incidentally more or less on the same day. On the one hand, AfriForum was filing criminal charges against 12 people who have openly encouraged the slaughter of white people on social media. On the other hand, a white man gave a black woman a lift in the only space he had available: the back of his bakkie. The problem was that there was a big cage on the back and the woman agreed to hitch a ride inside the cage.
Certainly, the latter example leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and a reasonable person should be angry at first sight of the picture of a black woman in a cage on the back of a bakkie. Taking all the information into consideration a reasonable person would also conclude that publicly calling for the slaughter and rape of people based on the colour of their skin is exponentially worse than the so-called #BakkieCage story. But then again, an informed South African can also accurately guess which one of these stories made the headlines…
Even after the story behind the #BakkieCage “incident” became known (how the woman got into the cage of her own free will) Adriaan Basson, News24’s Editor-in-chief, continued to write about it, slamming the white man for giving the black woman a lift in a cage. Basson went even further, reminding us about what he describes as 300 years of oppression of black people by white people in South Africa.
Clichéd as it may sound, I couldn’t help thinking about George Orwell’s famous line: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
In the same week, Ahmed Areff, National News Editor for News24, wrote an opinion piece entitled: “Why we will keep exposing social media racists”. Assuming that he was writing about the news of the abovementioned charges that have been filed as a result of social media racism, I read Areff’s piece, only to find that the editorial team at News24 appear to believe that anybody can be a victim of racism, except if you are white.
“Our history as a civilisation is full of examples of how language has been used to dehumanise people,” writes Areff. He then continues by listing examples: “Black people are called niggers or kaffirs, Arabs are called sandniggers and terrorists, and Jews were compared to rats and poisonous mushrooms and still face a lot more derogatory names. In Rwanda, Hutus called Tutsis cockroaches ...”
Anybody left out in these examples? In his writing about racism in South Africa, Areff went as far as the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and Nazi Germany in the 1940s in his collection of examples of racism toward different groups. At the same time, the incitement to murder, rape, assault and to destroy the property of white people in particular, which happens virtually on a daily basis in his own country, is conveniently excluded from his list of examples.
The problem with Basson’s “300 years of white oppression” statement is that it is based on generalised, presumptuous reasoning. The accusation is a political slur used to further the ideals of an ideology which appears to be dependent on the oversimplified notion that white people are perpetrators and black people are victims. A conclusion like that of Basson can only be reached by cherry-picking those historical facts that serve to strengthen your argument, while dismissing the rest.
It is a combination of selective memory and cherry-picking, induced with a strong dose of confirmation bias. Certainly, many examples of atrocities committed by white people against black people can be mentioned to strengthen this conclusion. But the same could just as well be said about atrocities committed by black people against white people. The point is that history is too complex to simply categorise people according to the colour of their skin into two groups: perpetrators and victims.
The result is a completely skewed narrative on race relations in South Africa. Random white people whom we have never heard of become national icons of evil when they publish offensive remarks about black people on social media, while government employees who openly slander white people and political representatives who encourage the slaughter of white people are usually left untouched by the same people in the media-elite who write sensational headlines about white racism.
In South Africa, white racism (in other words anti-black racism) is condemned by white people and black people alike. Expressing criticism about the actions of white people is a common practise. Criticising black people is however an activity reserved only for white racists and so-called “black traitors”. And those few white people who dare criticise black people in the same way that white people are criticised daily are quickly lambasted for their racist views.
The reality is that racism is not even as big a problem as the likes of Basson would want us to believe. The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) recently found that only 4,7% of people in South Africa describe racism as South Africa’s biggest problem. Think tanks and researchers who are not politically affiliated continuously reach the same conclusion.
There is of course nothing wrong with representing a constituency. It isn’t even necessarily wrong or unethical for a journalist to express his political views or to have his views come across in his writing. The problem however creeps in when a journalist allows his own confirmation bias to influence his reporting, when a political agenda is disguised as objective reporting, or when the political views of a news editor determines what makes the news and what doesn’t.
Thomas Sowell said that the word ‘racism’ is very much like ketchup: You can throw it over just about anything. “... and demanding evidence,” writes Sowell, “makes you a racist.”
In South Africa, it seems as if the response to white racism and black racism is almost always the same: “Let’s talk about white racism!” Fighting white racism is generally seen as the right thing to do. It seems however that the mere mention of black racism is regarded by those in the mainstream media as a racist act in itself.
Ernst Roets is deputy CEO of AfriForum. He can be followed on Twitter at @ernstroets