Could it be that we’ve just become more aware and far more intolerant of racist behaviour?
Have black South Africans perhaps become more assertive around this issue, finally fed-up that racism is still with us 21 years after our liberation?
Whatever the case, racism is clearly tearing at our social fabric, even threatening our development as a mature democracy. We have to start going beyond the usual condemnation.
This past week I used Twitter and Facebook to suggest that we should consider classifying racist behaviour (physical attacks, obvious discrimination, gross insults) as hate crimes. The response was telling: most whites came with many caveats, ifs and buts; most black respondents agreed with me. The debate itself became saturated with denial, prejudice and resentment.
My idea is not to create new laws or define new crimes, but to have tougher sentences imposed on offenders whose targets were intentionally selected because of his/her race or culture (and we should add gender, sexual preference and religion). This is already done in the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere.
Perhaps we could also consider, as the Labour Party in Britain is proposing, a blacklist of people convicted of such hate crimes. This could serve as a serious deterrent, not only because of the public shaming, but because people on the list will have to disclose it to future employers.
Crimen injuria, defined as an act of unlawfully, intentionally and seriously impairing the dignity of another, is already an offence in our common law. But in reality there are very few cases brought by the state; most crimen injuria cases are taken to court as civil cases by the aggrieved party and costs a lot of money.
Our Equality Courts are the solution to this, created to hear cases of unfair discrimination, harassment and hate speech at virtually no cost to complainants. Few people, however, know about these courts and there are far too few of them. Civil society organisations need to popularize these courts and push for one at each magistrate’s court.
Okay, I can already hear the chorus of ifs and buts. Let’s deal with them.
A core issue
There are more important things to deal with than racism, like bad service delivery and corruption, it is said. Apart from the fact that we can do all those things as well as combat racism, this argument seems to play down the dangers of racism.
In a country with our history, legacy of inequality and huge diversity, racism is a core issue that can end up threatening our stability.
Stronger action against racism is a threat to free expression, is another argument. Yes, we have to be careful not to unnecessarily censor debate and opinion in the name of fighting racism. But we should not allow intolerance and racism to hide behind the free speech argument. There are already legitimate restrictions to free expression, like defamation and inciting violence against the state. Grossly insulting someone on something other than his/her race is already accepted as crimen injuria. Think of racist language or racial stereotypes in the same way.
We should not take anyone’s voice away, but we should make sure that racist statements and behaviour are seen as uncivilised, crude and socially taboo. Whites, especially, should publicly distance themselves from the bigots and isolate them socially, as has happened to singer Steve Hofmeyr.
Another favourite argument among many whites is that many ANC/EFF politicians regularly make racist statements; that BEE and affirmative action are racist practices. Stop them first before you preach to us, they say. Or: the useless civil service and Eskom’s pathetic performance made me a racist.
Yes, some politicians have in recent times made reckless and generalised statements about white people, like Julius Malema’s statement that all whites are criminals. But what value is there for whites to take the bait and respond with more racism?
And let’s face it, those who say that Eskom turned them into racists were racists to start off with. Incompetence and bad leadership know no colour. BEE and AA, when correctly applied, are in line with the spirit of our constitution and simply cannot be seen as racist.
A complicating factor is that many politicians and commentators are using accusations of racism as a way of venting their own frustrations and personal anger, others as camouflage for own failings. Some public personalities on social media write about nothing else than accusing all whites of being supremacists and bigots, often using extreme language – a form of racism in itself. Not all incidents of violence or rage involving white people are racist.
Yes, power and privilege should be factored into the racism debate. We all accept jokes about heterosexuals, but frown upon jokes about gay people, for instance. Stereotypes about rich white men are perceived as different to those of black domestic workers.
White society should understand and be sensitive about this. But it doesn’t mean that blacks can’t be racist. Xenophobia is one example. Power relations have shifted significantly the last two decades. There are many powerful black people and many powerless white people nowadays. Things are not as simple as they used to be.
The more we succeed in eradicating real racism, the smaller the chances that legitimate criticism of those in power and all incidents of anti-social behaviour involving whites are labelled as racist.
A sharp reduction in white racism is sure to starve the growth of black racism of oxygen.