Whispers of racism

Thomas Johnson says the Hate Bill is likely to be used as a tool of racial retribution

Whispers of racism: Hate speech law may harm race relations

A recent UNISA/Sowetan Dialogues co-hosted by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation on November 30 had this apocalyptic-sounding subject: “What can be done to prevent the total collapse of race relations in South Africa?”

The abstract verbatim, as printed in the Sunday Times, November 20:

“There has been several reported cases of racism and discrimination in the country this year. They include prejudice and racial discrimination endured by black learners at Pretoria Girls High School; while the racism cases involving the likes of Penny Sparrow, Dianne Kohler-Barnard and Chris Hart underscored the fact racism in South Africa is still alive and kicking. Is this an indication that, two decades after democracy; the noble idea of a rainbow nation, united in its diversity; remains elusive? Is this the nation-building and social cohesion project at risk of falling apart and what will be the consequences of this failure?”

According to this hypothesis racism is the sole preserve of whites – the abstract doesn’t mention black racism and xenophobia.

Contradicting the dire and exaggerated reportage about race relations is the Institute of Race Relation’s 2015 survey Race: What South Africans Really Think that found 54% of South Africans said relations improved since 1994 and 79% experienced no racism. Only 5% think racism, xenophobia or reverse apartheid is the country’s most serious unresolved problem.

The closest it comes to answering which group might be predisposed to be racist is 19% of whites and 9% of blacks (black, “coloured” and Asian to the question: What race do you prefer your child’s teacher to be?).

South Africa’s population is 55 million, with 4.5 million whites. Consider this thought experiment: extrapolating from the finding above, only 19% of whites, or 855 000 people, might be considered racially conservative (or racist). And 9% of blacks, or 4.5 million people (9 percent of the remaining 50.5 million population), might be conservative or racist. So there could be five times more black racists, bigots and xenophobes than white bigots. This makes sense because the country’s black population is eleven times larger.

So why does a small group of racists within the white minority – if we accept my reasoning, less than 2% of SA’s total population – provoke such outrage that leads the media, government, state institutions, politicians, academics, etc to the conclusion Armageddon is upon us? And this while virtually ignoring the much larger number of potential black racists and xenophobes within the community?

For example, in SA xenophobia, which is not racism by definition but still prejudice against people of other nationalities, is almost exclusively by black Africans against dark-skinned aliens including Somalis, Nigerians and Pakistanis. Is this not racism by another name? Why are attacks on foreign-owned shops, where the owners are forced to flee, virtually ignored by the media and state? There’s loss of life and property and impairment of dignity and security, but it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Note after a delayed report the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found King Goodwill Zwelithini was not guilty of promoting and propagating hatred against foreigners during a speech on 15 March 2015 that led to xenophobic attacks in Durban, but “misinterpreted”. Lawyers for Human Rights believe his speech played a “contributing role”, and he was “unrepentant”.

Jonathan Jansen asked why there is outrage at (white) racism but none at the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl. He said:

“We have become an outrage-by-incident society. We wait for the next racist act and then, for about a week, celebrities, politicians and Joe Blow try to out-moralise [in my opinion certain media personalities tend to “out-moralise” the whole nation] each other with statements of outrage. Then everything goes quiet again until the next incident.”

Referring to the case in Nyanga where 10 men raped the girl he said, “You are less likely to have heard about this event, since most of the media barely gave it a glance”. His conclusion is “we” care more about racism than rape and other crimes especially affecting impoverished communities, because it happens so often.

I agree we have become inured to unacceptably high levels of crime and other social ills. But if some of us “care” more about racism it’s because in this society – one where the dream of economic growth and prosperity has been indefinitely deferred and democratic principles are being threatened – racism is an expedient bogeymen, or whipping boy, used to distract attention from the country’s failures. And whites are in no position to complain.

Political events over the past year – former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s firing and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s legal troubles – caused almost irreparable harm to the economy. The culprits orchestrating this are still in office and fighting tooth and nail to remain there, causing concerns about the erosion of constitutional principles.

But if we believe the media, politicians, certain members of academia and SAHRC, Penny Sparrow, a slightly pathetic elderly white woman no-one had heard of before, created almost as much damage to SA’s social fabric as rampaging President Jacob Zuma, Nkandlagate, Gordhangate and state capture.

It was her utterance more than anything that resulted in the hasty formulation of the “hate speech law”. About it acting chairman of the SAHRC Mohamed Ameermia said “we are calling on Parliament to fast-track the national plan to criminalise hate speech”, a fatuous request because this is not a matter of life and death and procedures for the enactment of laws cannot be swept aside on a whim.

The SAHRC was lethargic prosecuting Velaphi Khumalo for his “do what Hitler did to the Jews” comment, for which he received a slap on the wrist from his employer, compared to the over-the-top reaction and punishment meted out to Sparrow. So its demand to fast-track the law is ironic.

(Disclosure: After the bumbling [affidavit “lost”] and indifferent [no proper investigation] way the SAHRC handled my complaint about a routine matter – unrelated to racism – years ago, I have little use for it. My cynicism says the institution is motivated by political agendas especially where it concerns the perennially hot-topic, white-on-black racism. However, my prejudice toward it has no correlation to the actual good it might be doing to create a just, equitable and colour-blind society. Unfortunately, because inequality has increased and our constitutional values are under threat, I’d say it is failing.)

The consensus among speakers at the UNISA/Sowetan Dialogues is the “fundamental cause of racial prejudice that engulfed the country is the lack of economic transformation and inequality” the inherited economic system post-1994, competition for (limited) opportunities, continuing white people privilege and the landless and poverty-stricken black majority (Teresa Oakley-Smith, Harry Nengwekhulu, et al).

This is largely my conclusion too. However, I disagree profoundly with their reductionist and tendentious assertion racism and prejudice is only a white problem, as outlined in their abstract. And for the media, politicians, state and others to promote and propagate this view is irresponsible and pouring kerosene over volatile tensions, harming fragile race relations.

Whites as a proportion of the population are the most economically affluent and privileged group (although the black middle-class has trebled over the last 12 years to more than double the white middle-class). This is due to historical reasons, which we should not forget.

But the failure of the country to improve socio-economic conditions for the majority of its people within a generation, if ever, which other developing countries show is possible, are the result of the near collapse of education, which on its own would have made a significant impact; implementation of ideological but unsound economic policies; entrenched, symbiotic power relations between the ANC alliance and big business harking back to the dawn of democracy that resulted in a closed, relatively un-free and inefficient economy mitigating against inclusion, growth and prosperity for all.

Analysts and economists – but not those on the left – ratings agencies and IMF have repeatedly expressed these concerns and that the country must reform its economy. But it falls on deaf ears because the status quo suits decision makers. Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst wrote in Africa’s Third Liberation the people and leaders of a country have a choice not to remain poor in terms of policies they implement. But our leaders have decided we shall remain poor and on low-growth and low-development path.

Among the middle-class, power elite and opinion-makers there’s a self-satisfied, “I’m alright, Jack” attitude that belies the gross conditions the majority live under – unemployment, poverty, deprivation, crime and despair. It’s not a black-white thing – racism, and xenophobic-inspired racism, and class consciousness is not exclusive to whites.

But it may be a special problem when, given our history, whites express racist and questionable opinions, including not necessarily racist remarks, about “those” people. (I can’t understand why today a small minority of whites – the two percent of the population – would still call blacks “animals” or similar, and mean it.)

Dianne Kohler-Barnard, Chris Hart and Gareth Cliff are examples of having expressed possibly insensitive opinions given the prevailing climate. But they were unfairly excoriated by their enemies, employers and social media and inaccurately termed “racist”, and their reputations almost destroyed. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible offers a warning about the dangers of whispering.

But in our society outrageous double standards exist. This is what Jimmy Mzwanele Manyi, president of the Progressive Professionals Forum, wrote and published in what was once a leading newspaper for intellectuals and opinion makers, the Mail & Guardian (M&G):

“The new normal has also provided a safe haven for the breeding and nurturing of racist stereotypes and has emboldened the racist elements to call black people monkeys, openly revere apartheid bosses like Verwoerd and PW Botha and provided a climate for people like Chris Hart to accuse black people of entitlement.”

This appalling hypocrisy is from one who as a government spokesman unequivocally stated “coloureds” are in oversupply in the Western Cape (he meant me too). Former finance and minister in the presidency Trevor Manuel wrote Manyi was a “racist in the mould of HF Verwoed” (note the irony Manyi comparing other people to Verwoed too).

While everyone has a right to his opinion, it’s absurd M&G published this so-called authoritative anti-white, racism article from one who has so little credibility – and was the laughing stock of country – in the matter. A double irony is M&G ran it under the headline “Double standards and racism deepen in South Africa”.

Double standards by and applied to whom; who was likened to apartheid’s architect for his “coloured oversupply” remark, and did Manyi express the view of the ANC alliance and government? (Would M&G publish an article about black racism written by an “apologetic” Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart? I doubt it.)

But this is what the media and establishment have become: willing to look for white racists under every bush but ignoring or excusing glaring social and economic prejudice and the “fundamental causes” of inequality and lack of economic development in the country, the “real” issue. They, whom I call the PC witch-hunt brigade, have started a whispering campaign against white racists and alleged white racists, although there are racists among all groups who are not shy about expressing their opinions.

Manyi apologised and his employer forgave him (as Velaphi Khumalo’s did). I don’t know if the SAHRC investigated him. His deliberate racial agitation, or faux pas if we were inclined to be kind, resulted in no real harm to him personally; his reputation is intact and some in the media space now consider him an authority on race relations. But are white racists and those who carelessly utter questionable remarks about blacks allowed to apologise and receive some form of redemption?

Kohler-Barnard was brought before a DA disciplinary committee, fined and prosecuted at the Equality Court. Chris hart lost his job – he “resigned” – after Standard bank suspended him. M-Net fired Gareth Cliff from Idols SA, but even after he won his court case, the 702 midday news show host asked Cliff’s lawyer, Dali Mpofu, sotto voce, about Cliff’s “racism”.

After Matthew Theunissen’s racist post on Facebook he apologised immediately, including expressing remorse during a radio interview, and cooperated with the SAHRC. This was not enough to get him off the hook completely, and it should not have been. He settled with the SAHRC and received six months community service, “anger management therapy‚ anti-racism research and no sharing on social media”.

So if you’re a white racist, you’re unlikely to be shown mercy, even after you apologise. If you defend or offer support to a white racist or alleged racist, you are deemed toxic and your reputation and livelihood shall suffer. Even if you are innocent of anything, you shall be shunned by association. As M-Net’s lawyer Wim Trengrove argued, “M-Net does not want somebody who defended Penny Sparrow”.  

Similarly, it’s unlikely Vanessa Hartley will receive much mercy although she apologised. It was in reference to her remarks the SAHRC’s Mohamed Ameermia urged the fast-tracking of the hate speech law.

I don’t think South Africa needs the hate speech law because cases this year proved existing mechanisms are effective to deal with racist and hate speech provided the will is there, which the SAHRC showed with its perceived one-sided prosecution of white racists. (It appears reluctant to tackle black racism and xenophobia, but I would be glad to be proven wrong.)

My biggest worry, though, is it’s the thin edge of the wedge to shut down freedom of expression, bit by bit. How long will it be before there is a bill preventing criticism of the president, cabinet and Parliamentarians?

I wrote before racism ought to be treated in a sober, balanced and fair way. My impression is it’s not. By the examples they use, the UNISA/Sowetan Dialogues’ abstract attributing racism to whites is a reflection of the prejudicial, bigoted and, yes, racist way the media, state institutions, etc consider the problem.

From the way racism is being dealt with now, I fear once the hate speech law comes into effect it may be used as a tool to punish whites who step out of line and who, based on whispers and gossip, are perceived to step out of line. This is where we are already at, but the hate speech law has the potential to damage race relations and harden attitudes when racism is actually not the country’s supreme priority.