As we kick-start a new year, I was genuinely hoping to write on something more positive but sadly 2016 has started on a rather sombre note. Just a few days ago on New Year’s eve, a white South African Estate Agent wrote some unsavoury (to put it mildly) and down-right racist statements about black beach goers in Durban. She posted this on her Neighbourhood Watch’s Facebook group but it didn’t take long before her post was all over the internet, media and the tips of people’s tongues. Naturally, the black community was outraged which makes a lot sense considering that she referred to blacks as monkeys and as time has gone on, we have witnessed an increasing amount of white people backing her post and some have been using this opportunity to release fresh statements of racism.
In order to truly understand the racial tension that seems to brew in South Africa every now and then, we need to look no further than history. Fortunately, we do not have to go too deep into it because Apartheid is a concept that is adequately understood by the world’s general population. For anyone who has been living under a rock, we cannot let you suffer in ignorance. Apartheid was a 46 year period of racial segregation that lasted up until 1994. For those 46 years, life was incredibly difficult and dangerous if your skin colour was not white. Out of all the races affected, black people had the most traumatic time since they were viewed as inferior, denied basic freedoms and got regularly chased in the streets by white policemen with armies of German Shepherds. The turning point for South Africa came in 1994 when it became a democratic state with new leadership and hope. This event was celebrated all of over the world and the country became ‘the go to guy’ for tips on peace and reconciliation. At this point in time, the black community was ecstatic; Apartheid was over and promises were made that all the wrongs of the past would be fixed. Fast forward 20 years and you see so many inequalities between races, a black majority that was promised things that have not fully materialised and racism. Although I would have not been able to predict it in 1994, it now seems clear that South Africa’s push for a united and equal land was either too ambitious or in the very least the strategies to make this happen were poorly executed.
The past 6 days or so on social media have been about one white racist woman’s rant and her subsequent actions which included an apology that added salt to the gaping wound and an attempt to justify herself on national radio. When you listen to her, you begin to understand that she is deluded by the idea of Freedom of Speech and fails to acknowledge the existence or impact of Hate Speech. As far as I am concerned, and according to the laws of South Africa, Hate Speech is a crime. Human right’s activists or lawyers will tell you that Hate Speech is ‘a gesture, conduct, writing or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected group or individual’. In a land that has dished out a tremendous amount of unfairness on the black individual, calling them a ‘monkey’ and defending your label might indeed incite a wave of violence that can spread like wild fire. Unfortunately, incidences of cyber racism are nothing new on the internet. A couple of years ago we had a white PR Executive who decided that it was a good idea to tweet ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!’ before getting on a flight. By the time she landed, she had lost her job and the internet was baying for her blood. Last year a prominent Member of Parliament from a South African political party shared a post that was calling for former Apartheid leader F.W. De Klerk to return to office. She was suspended but later reinstated after winning her appeal. Even Mandela’s former Personal Assistant got involved in the race issue after she accused President Zuma of ‘targeting white people’.
In my opinion, the race issue in South Africa and the world is bigger than just one or two individuals. Every time a racial slur goes viral, the world becomes so fixated on the person that said it but forgets that Hate Speech is a crime that goes beyond one person’s moment of madness on a public forum. For many people, racism occurs in the comfort of their own homes, through private social media messaging, office hallways and in the backseat of expensive sedans. In many cases, racist outburst on social media have led to individuals losing their jobs and other privileges which in many ways serves a deterrent to would be offenders. This is all good and well but it still does not comprehensively address the problem since we have to wait for someone to say something publicly before justice can take its course. This brings us to some important questions: What do we do about undercover racists? How do we deal with them? The ones that deny fellow humans a promotion based solely on skin colour? The ones who treat waitresses or bank tellers from minority groups like inferior human beings? Let’s face it, a majority of racists know that voicing out their opinions in public is a form of professional suicide hence they find other ways to act out their views. The really sad part about the current uproar on social media is that it will not last. In a few months (or less), the story of the white estate agent, the white economist and all their supporters will be buried in the back of our minds whilst we focus on the latest breaking news. After a year or so, someone will post or engage in hate speech during a TV interview and we will get outraged again. This will happen again, and again…..and again. If we quickly dive back into history, we can deduce that an oppressed group’s patience runs out sooner or later but at the same time a war between races does little to solve the problem but merely instigates plots of revenge from the losing side. A vicious and never ending cycle.
In many ways, South Africa has made great moves in establishing itself as a global and certainly continental powerhouse. It has many best practices that other countries can adopt but its weaknesses have also caught the international spotlight. The race issue has been and continues to be one of the major hurdles which manages to influence other aspects of the country. From where I am sitting, this hurdle will be South Africa’s true test and even the right strategies to curb this hate could take decades to overhaul a system that was built on oppression. In 1992, Rodney King asked, ‘can we all get along? Can we get along?’ during the racial tensions in Los Angeles. This is the very same question that South Africans and the world at large needs to constantly ask itself. As a black man, my response is: yes we can, but there will be no real peace until we put the past under a magnifying glass instead of trying to sweep it under the carpet. The race to end racism begins with ensuring an equal playing field for all and although it is easier said than done, ignoring this crucial aspect will spill blood sooner or later. At this current rate, it is really not a question of ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’.
Thank you for reading and feel free to share your comments below or through email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me also take this opportunity to wish you a successful 2016, personally and professionally.