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23 April 2014 18:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Hate crime: there is no such thing as an excuse - ever

  • Pierre de Vos
It is called blaming the victim. Those of us who have been on the receiving end of racism, sexism and homophobia, blatant discrimination, or the violence that sometimes result from extreme prejudice, know it well. Instead of condemning the racist/sexist/homophobic verbal or physical attack, apologists blame the victims of the attack. Shockingly, this sickness has seemingly now also infected the spokesperson for the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

There is, of course, often more than one version of an event. But what is not in dispute is that a transgender student was attacked outside a UWC student residence last weekend. Glenton Matthyse, UWC law student and a member of UWC gay rights group Gayla, described the assault as “severe” and said he and two friends tried to stop the beating. He alleged that the security guards did not intervene immediately to protect the victim.

University spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo did not condemn the attack. Instead, he said an investigation was under way and that: "[The university] does not condone violence or approve of action that discriminates against any person's constitutional rights." He claimed that campus security and other staff stopped the fighting.

There is a vast difference between not condoning an attack and condemning it. It’s the difference between not endorsing a certain course of action – a passive and relatively neutral stance – and taking and active and unequivocal stance against a hate crime. 

At the very least a spokesperson for an institution of higher learning, imbued with the values contained in the Constitution, would be expected to express outrage at a vicious homophobic assault on a student of that institution. Tyhalibongo chose not to do so, which suggests that he is not free from the naked homophobia which triggered this hate crime.

One might still have given the UWC spokesperson the benefit of doubt. But he then proceeded to say that while some students fled the scene, Gayla members verbally abused the guards. He is reported to have accused the Gayla-UWC members of being unruly and in a "drunken state" – as if this could explain or provide some needed “context” to understand the attack and the alleged inaction of the security guards.

In short, Tyhalibongo blamed the victims. But in such a case, the so-called context is irrelevant. After all, it is not a crime to get drunk. It is however, a crime to beat up somebody because he happens to be gay. 

As the UWC Student Representative Council (SRC) pointed out in an statement condemning the attack:

“We also read in some reports that the students were drunk and unruly, that does not explain the inaction by the security guard in question. If anything this statement condones drunken people being beaten or to be descriptive is tantamount to saying girls can get raped because they wear mini-skirts.” 

How different is this from exculpatory statements so often made by some among us whenever news of another racist incident hit the media? I recall that when a Virgin Active member hurled racist insults at another member, several compatriots defended the racist by arguing that the victim was not blameless because she was too loud and disturbed other gym goers. As if this could ever justify the racism involved in that case.

The tendency to blame the victim of racism, sexism or homophobia instead of the perpetrators of the crime runs deep in our society. Often, this is based on an unacknowledged identification with the racism, sexism or homophobia that gave rise to the attack. (“I am not a racist but….”) As if those who are looking for excuses suspect that they might share the prejudices that led to the attack and are trying to find excuses for their own prejudice. 

It is worth stating again that for the purposes of judging the behavior of the UWC attackers and the campus security, it is completely irrelevant whether the victims were drunk or not. 

Quite frankly, if I was viciously assaulted by a homophobe for being gay while I believed that the very people paid to protect me were failing to do so, I would probably also have verbally abused the guards – whether I was drunk or not.

Come to think of it, when my former partner was refused entry into a gay bar because he was black, I proceeded to insult the doorman. He was completely unfazed when I called him a racist. It was only after I called him “very stupid” that he punched me. I guess some people are not insulted when one calls them a racist. They only begin to get touchy when one questions their intelligence.

Surely UWC management must publicly reprimand its spokesperson for launching an unwarranted attack of the victims of a hate crime. It would also help if the management apologised to the victims whose rights were trampled on twice: first when homophobic students physically attacked them, and then when UWC’s spokesperson did so verbally. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
Pierre de vos

Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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