Taking a stand against hate

Charisse Zeifert on the legal mechanisms being put in place to protect communities against prejudice

Last week, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services continued to hear oral submissions from civil society on the draft Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.

This Bill will be an essential part of creating awareness about hate speech and hate crimes, effectively legislating against them and allowing for proper monitoring of the problem so that solutions can be implemented.  This is one more stride that our country is taking to fight against the legacy of Apartheid.

Heaven knows, this is needed.  The most recent hate crime which has garnered public attention involves a white Stellenbosch student urinating on a black student’s belongings.  It comes as the latest in a list of shameful episodes of racism in SA.  While we might feel angered, disappointed and frustrated, I am pretty sure, none of us are surprised.

The effects of our past still persist. As ordinary citizens, we typically remain spatially, linguistically and culturally separated, neither knowing nor understanding each other. Stereotypes, sometimes positive but often negative, still exist. 

Taking a stand against hate is one way we can strengthen ties between South Africans and combat prejudice. In February this year, the Constitutional Court gave a seminal judgement on hate speech, in the case between the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on behalf of the SAJBD and Cosatu’s Bongani Masuku. 

Speaking after the finding, one of the Advocates in the case, Advocate Carol Steinberg, made an interesting observation:  she said that South African Jews are not perceived to be a vulnerable group; rather, they are seen as being a powerful and economically strong community, and certainly not one in need of protection. 

Yet the SAHRC recognised the importance of taking on this case. It recognised what those who see Jews as powerful and outspoken failed to see - that there is an anomaly between perceived Jewish privilege on the one hand and the reality of Jewish vulnerability emanating from a long history of oppression and the still ongoing hatred and animosity directed against Jewish people.

The hatred of the antisemitic crowd resonates within an echo-chamber of ill-will that eventually makes its way into anti-Jewish incidents, such as Hitler salutes on campus, a pig’s head placed in what was thought to be a kosher deli in Woolworths, scurrilous comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel, offensive graffiti on Jewish community buildings and similar. 

Of course, not everyone holds these views. The key question that needs to be asked, is, not what drives the hatred, but what motivates its opposite.  Psychologists speak about the Contact Hypothesis, a theory that suggests that prejudice and conflict between groups can be reduced if members of the groups interact with each other. 

There are those who have had opportunity to connect with the Jewish community, and as a result don’t fall prey to simplistic stereotypes.  A moving example of this is Advocate Christiaan Bester’s description of why the Bongani Masuku trial was personally important. For him “the case was a homecoming of sorts”.  He shared his history of relocating, as a young Afrikaner to a Jewish suburb at the age of six.

While he initially had trouble adapting, it was the Jewish boys of the neighbourhood who took him under their wing.  The case allowed him to “repay their kindness” to his Jewish friends by fighting to ensure “they still had a place under the South African sun”.

Bester ended his explanation with a remarkably insightful and powerful statement revealing his deep understanding of the fears of the Jewish community and reflecting a deep empathy of the way in which our history and experience with trauma shapes our current reality and fears.     

His understanding is encapsulated how he links a family visit to Auschwitz to how easily and quickly hatred could spread.  In his words, “It was a warm summer’s day when we visited Auschwitz and it had recently rained. On the other side of the barbed wire fence line, constructed by the Nazis to prevent their victims from escaping, a small flock of white storks were feeding on crickets and grasshoppers in the stands of long green grass. Those same birds migrate to the eastern Lowveld of South Africa each summer, where I have frequently observed them in the vast expanse of the mopani savannahs of the northern Kruger. It made me realize that Auschwitz is not a world removed. The experiences of South Africans Jews do not occur in some isolated setting, detached from increasing anti-Semitism across the world. No matter how far away from you it seems, hate cannot be allowed to fester, whether in a kosher supermarket in a Paris suburb, or outside a synagogue in Orange Grove. It is only ever a bird flight away.”

Bester has understood the link between hate speech, hate crimes and the need to protect our society,  without fear or favour.   He may very well have undertaken this case even had it not been for his connection with Jewish kids in his youth. But there is no doubt that this contact served to deepen his commitment. 

The Bongani Masuku Case, civil society bodies like the Hate Crimes Working Group and the proposed legislation on hate crimes all provide legal mechanisms for protecting communities against racism, antisemitism, homophobia and other bigotries.  But we need to go beyond this.  Bester shows that connecting with other communities, learning about our similarities and respecting our differences, can make a truly positive impact. The empathy he shows is the place we need to reach in terms of our shared humanity.

The longer we, as South Africans don’t truly get to know each other, the greater the likelihood of incidences, like the one that happened at Stellenbosch University, will continue to occur. 

As Bester correctly says, “hate cannot be allowed to fester”, whether against the Jewish community or any other group in South Africa.  We need the positive engagement to see each other in an authentic and profound way and not in terms of colour, religion or our associations.  This is how we need to now move forward as a nation. 

Charisse Zeifert is Head: Communications at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.