No right to be revolting

Douglas Gibson says public violence evident in the H&M and Hoërskool Overvaal cases needs to stop

Many white South Africans speak fondly of their children and grandchildren as ‘monkeys.’ To them, the term has no racial connotations at all. Many black South Africans have a different view. To them, the term ‘monkey’ is one of racial abuse directed at black people over many years. Many black South Africans are hurt and offended when called ‘monkeys.’ Given the South African context, can we all simply accept that it is a term to be avoided in reference to anyone, child or adult, who is black? Surely that is not too difficult.

But the recent ongoing H&M incident is instructive of where we are in South Africa. The company is a Swedish one; it is not an African or South African one. It does business worldwide as well as here. Is it reasonable to think that the object of advertising their products is to find favour with potential purchasers of their goods and the last thing the company wanted was to give offence and land in a public relations disaster? That being so, surely one must think that in Sweden, a Scandinavian country that has few black people, it never even occurred to the marketing and advertising people that the term ‘monkey’ was offensive to many black people.

They have issued abject apologies, making it clear they regret the offence the advertisement caused and they have gone so far as to appoint a senior person to oversee sensitive matters of race and transformation. They will also continue opening new stores in our country and providing additional jobs for our people.

What many people, black and white, have difficulty in accepting is the hooliganism and outrageously violent and illegal conduct of certain Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who in fits of manufactured outrage went on the rampage at the Sandton City premises of H&M. The EFF always suffers from a degree of disappearance when Parliament is not sitting and now that the ANC is receiving its first positive publicity in years, someone in the EFF regarded the H&M saga as a heaven-sent opportunity to attract some media attention. Flagrant thuggery is guaranteed to gain newspaper and television coverage. One wonders whether the almost universal disapproval of the EFF’s actions will make them think again.

It is not possible to have it both ways: political parties are either an important part of the functioning of a constitutional democracy, observing the Rule of Law and contending for power through the ballot box, or else they are instruments of anarchy and unrest, not caring who or what is injured or damaged in a reckless breaking of the rules.

One saw a repetition of this conduct in the violent confrontation outside Hoërskool Overvaal. The High Court upheld the constitutional right of an Afrikaans medium school that was full to decline to register fifty-five children demanding to be taught in English at Overvaal when there were vacancies at several English medium schools in the area.

The Gauteng Education Department is taking the matter on appeal, as is its right. The judgement might even be overturned on appeal, but the MEC in charge of education set a very poor example of poor-mouthing the school, the court, and the judge. At a time when 30,000 of our children have not been placed in schools elsewhere in the province, Mr Lesufi chose to conflate language rights with race for these few learners.

That was enough for the EFF which transported hordes of young unemployed activists who were neither prospective parents of the school or learners and got them to stage what turned into a violent confrontation on the basis that the school is racist. Again, the manufactured outrage; again, the ignoring of the Rule of Law; again, the tactics of intimidation; again, the violence.

Some of the hooligans had the temerity to attack Judge Prinsloo on the grounds that he is Afrikaans speaking. His judgment might be right or wrong, but these ignoramuses do not know that Bill Prinsloo was a member of the Progressives many decades before it was generally acceptable for an Afrikaans speaker in Pretoria to be a Prog. What a sad example was set for the children at the school.

Did any of these protestors (whose right to protest peacefully is guaranteed by our law) notice that in the recent street demonstrations in Zimbabwe that led to the ousting of President Robert Mugabe, no one was injured, no windows were broken, no rubbish bins were overturned or streets littered, no schools or libraries or public buildings were burnt down, but the point was made: it was time for Mugabe to go.

Public violence is increasingly evident in our country. Whether it is people protesting about lack of service delivery or about the demarcation of a town or a union mass march, the participants keep pushing the envelope so that violence and damage to public and private property becomes the norm. It is time for this to stop.

The political leaders and leaders of unions must set an example of peaceful protest. They must discipline their members who will not listen. And the authorities must demonstrate a seriousness about strengthening the Rule of Law by ensuring that those who commit acts of violence are made to pay for their criminal conduct. To an outsider, it seemed that the SAPS were very good at Overvaal but often they seem paralysed in the face of violence, sometimes not lifting a finger to restore order, let alone arresting those who break the law.

When more accused appear on public violence charges and of malicious damage to property, there might be reversal of the tide, with violence being seen as unacceptable and having unpleasant consequences for the perpetrators.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.

This article first appeared in The Star.