South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Night club assault – what the response to withdrawal of charges reveals

Op-Ed: Night club assault – what the response to withdrawal of charges reveals

A decision by the director of public prosecutions in the Western Cape not to press charges against four young white men after an alleged racist incident outside a nightclub in Cape Town has once again highlighted the complexity of race relations in the province. While there is essentially little bad news in the story, the reaction to the decision not to prosecute has in itself been revealing. It is a pity that two other cases against white Capetonians allegedly falsely accused of alleged violence and racism were withdrawn. We could have learned much had these cases made it to trial. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Well, the good news if you are white and are ever falsely accused of being violent, a racist or uttering racist insults, is that you can take comfort in the fact that the courts and the justice system will protect and serve you.

Particularly if you give attorney William Booth a ring from the cells.

Booth has represented three of the boys involved in the Tiger Tiger nightclub altercation, Chad de Matos, Aaron Mack and Mitchell Turner, as well as Monique Fuller who had faced charges of drunken driving and crimen injuria, and teacher Talana-Jo-Huysamer who was charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and crimen injuria. In all of these cases the alleged perpetrators were white and the victims black.

In the case of the ‘Tiger Tiger Five’, the Western Cape director of public prosecutions, Rodney de Kock, decided not to prosecute when Booth presented evidence collected by a private investigator, Christian Botha, appointed by one of the families to look into the the case.

The boys were accused of allegedly assaulting and racially abusing a 52-year-old mother of six, Delia Adonis, after she had intervened in a brawl involving several inebriated young men outside of the club earlier this year.

Fuller’s case was struck off the roll when only two of seven state witnesses arrived to testify on the court date. Booth told the magistrate that Fuller had a right to a speedy trial and that his requests to the state for more details on the charges had not proved successful. In Huysamer’s case, the complainant withdrew charges citing the pressures of publicity. Here Booth informed the court that while “it would have been an interesting matter for trial” he was of the opinion that there are “no merits, so why waste the court’s time”.

It is unfortunate that the cases involving Fuller and Huysamer were not tried, even if Booth may have been of the view that they would be a waste of time (and money). Especially considering the province has experienced what appears to have been a series of violent racial incidents, at least according to Nathan Johnson, Wynberg district prosecutor of the court where the Tiger Tiger accused made their preliminary appearances. Johnson reportedly claimed that 15 cases of this nature had been heard in 12 months. If he was quoted correctly then this is a disturbing number of racial attacks. Anyone in their right mind would have to be concerned as well as wonder what the hell is going on.

A case involving Kenilworth swimming instructor, Tim Osrin, who is alleged to have beaten up domestic worker Cynthia Joni after mistaking her for a sex worker, will proceed in the Wynberg court next month.

It would have been edifying for citizens of Cape Town if the court had been able to interrogate exactly what had occurred during these interactions between white and black citizens in the cases that did not make it to trial. And if those charged were falsely accused then it would have been just had their accusers been made to understand the severity of the matter and the consequences, not only to the individual being accused but to the rest of a society grappling with a legacy of deep and harmful racism.

But in laying the charges we would not be wrong in assuming that those alleged to have been assaulted or racially abused must have been sufficiently aggrieved to expose themselves to an investigation with a possible cross-examination of their evidence in court. We are, however, not privy to the details of how police or the state set about investigating these instances or why, in the one case, witnesses didn’t pitch. All we have is the decision of the director of public prosecutions in the Tiger Tiger matter and the courts in the other two cases.

For many white people the accusation that they might be racist appears to be earth shattering, a psychic blow of catastrophic proportion to a fragile sense of self. It’s tantamount to being labelled a Nazi or a rhino poacher and the instinctive defensive response is one of hurt, victimhood or outrage. Being branded racist, however, is not the end of the world.

Sure it stings, is deeply hurtful and makes you feel kak when you don’t believe you are or the accusation might have arisen out of frustration and rage or simply maliciousness. If you are aware of the matrix of power and privilege of whiteness, of white agency, are self-reflective or conscious of how this plays out in a racially charged environment such as South Africa, you really will be okay. The courts will see you are an innocent person, falsely accused.

Years ago Barney Pityana, as chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, attacked Professor Dennis Davis for being racist after Davis’s criticism of legal changes made by the African National Congress (ANC). Davis, himself once a member of the ANC, weathered and survived the attack and is today Judge Dennis Davis.

Satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys attempts to take the sting out of engaging with our constructed sense of white identity thus: “My point is: yes I am a racist; I was born and raised in a country where people were racists. For 50 years of my life segregation was law; it was politically correct; so, I am now an alcoholic who doesn’t drink; I am a racist who will not be a racist; every morning I will wake up and I will say to myself, I will not be superior to anybody because anyone has a right; and of course, in the traffic, you become a racist in 40 seconds; so you must say ‘No, let the taxi go first!’”

What is really shattering is to be at the receiving end of institutionalised and casual racism (and sexism) and to meet with scorn, hostility and denial when pointing this out. To be silenced, to be checked on it, to be asked to bring proof is traumatic and an attack.

If you are not at the receiving end of racism (and classism too for that matter) you cannot and will not see it. It really is that simple. And while it might be comforting to believe that we live in Nelson Mandela’s ‘non-racial’ ideal world, we do not, well at least not yet. We are not ‘non-racial’, we see colour, we live it daily and denying this is to be willfully blind and insensitive to the experiences of others. Such is the collateral damage of a country with a deeply racist history such as ours.

That the charges were withdrawn against the Tiger Tiger boys proves that the state did not have enough of a case. We give the boys the benefit of the doubt. Without evidence to the contrary we cannot accuse them of racism in this instance. And so we must accept the verdict of the director of public prosecutions and the court as we accept this in other matters including the murder trials of Shrien Dewani, Fred van der Vyver and Oscar Pistorius.

This weekend, veteran journalist Ed Herbst in a piece titled “The ‘Tiger Tiger Five’:Story of a Race Hoax” for the political website Politicsweb explored the manner in which the story played out in the media in the aftermath of the arrest of the boys after the drunken brawl.

Herbst’s examines how journalists, particularly of the Independent Group, covered the story and points to the flaws in reporting, particularly the absence of the word ‘alleged’ in the preliminary stories. He also suggests the newspaper group is waging an apparent vendetta against white Capetonians in particular, as well as the University of Cape Town. While his critique with regard to the reporting of the case is not without merit, I shall not explore this or the other issues he raises. What I must respond to is the reference to a column I wrote on the dangers of white ahistoricism sparked by the news of the attack. Knowing that the charges have been withdrawn I stand by the sentiments of the column, they are broader than the case itself. But yes, I too did not employ the vital ‘alleged’ when referring to the boys.

After Herbst’s piece had appeared at the weekend, a decidedly triumphant and belligerent tone emerged in some of the retweets on Twitter. As if the director of public prosecution’s finding somehow absolves us all from further reflection, that someone has been deliberately caught out or that some sinister race conspiracy has been cracked. And it is these tweets and responses that provide further insight into the tenuous understanding of how crucial an issue this is.

Bad reporting fans race hysteria” was one such retweet. The last time the word ‘hysteria’ was used in public was in the 19th century by sexist men in an attempt to discredit women and the feminist movement. The title of the Herbst piece too, which may not have been his choosing, is ‘Story of a race hoax’. Was it? A hoax? Really? We don’t know this. It hasn’t been tested in a court. A less emotionally charged title could have been used as Herbst’s piece deals essentially with ‘shoddy reporting’ and not the essence of the allegations.

Another tweet suggested “there are some who so badly want to paint Cape Town as racist” which begs the question “to what end?”. Why would black people go to the enormous trouble and inconvenience of pointing out racism just to discredit the Western Cape and open themselves up to further abuse and vitriol in the process? Aint nobody got time.

It is an ANC plot because the DA (Democratic Alliance) rules here.” “Ah Jacob Zuma encourages it because it takes attention off him.” “Ah it’s an excuse to get attention and extort money.” “There is reverse racism.” “Black people are also racist.” “There is nothing else left to debate.”

Anything but “racism is real. We have a problem. How do we address it as a community which lives in the Western Cape. How can we become our better selves. Am I complicit?”

Allegations of racism in the province are, however, taken seriously, with the premier publicly undertaking to personally investigate all complaints. This sets an example, of course, and is vital in sending a message to citizens and businesses. Is it enough? Clearly not.

We cannot ignore or dismiss the fact that there are black South Africans who live in Cape Town or who have made it their home and who report feeling ill-at ease. This is a city with deep and clear class and race divisions, and while incidents of racism occur throughout the country, there is enough anecdotal evidence to point to the fact that we have a problem Houston.

Which is why, when a 52-year-old mother, a coloured woman, who works as a cleaner, attempted to intervene in a brawl between drunk, young men in a parking lot, she, as well as they, became casualties of a much bigger narrative playing out in the province. DM

Photo: A massive wave breaks over Kalk Bay harbour wall in Cape Town, South Africa, 26 June 2007. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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