Trench warfare. That’s what it is. The battle to exorcise racism from our midst resembles the World War I battles at Ypres or the Somme. Every time another person comes out of the racist closet, we go through this. It’s attrition warfare and it’s getting very tiring. I have a Final Solution to rid this county of racists once and for all. Then we shall all finally move on.
You have to love the beloved country. It really boggles the mind just how much foolishness, optimism, hatred, love, bigotry and forgiveness can be crammed into this dusty corner of Africa. Look at the period between 1985 and 1995. We went from the Rubicon speech to the 1995 Rugby World Cup in the space of a decade. We went from a white supremacist furiously declaring that black men would never have equal rights to a beaming black man donning the green and gold, once associated with apartheid. It all happened so fast.
We thought that just like that, the country would be whole. Oh, we knew that our terrible history would have to addressed, at some point. We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as if racism could be hauled up in front of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and be made to answer for all the pain and suffering it had caused. We truly believed this terrible cancer could be cured all at once. That by forcing people to confront their own prejudices, we may yet convince them of the error of their ways.
Alas, it was not to be. Those set in their ways of unrepentant bigotry would not be turned. Here we are, 16 years after we supposedly all kissed and made up, and racism is alive and well in our midst. Once more, the Hydra has raised a new head. Once more, the enemy is at the gates. And once more, we are called to arms to defend the fairytale country. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
What the Annelie Botes controversy shows is that we obviously have not moved on as a country. Not so much what she said, but our reaction to it. The same shock/horror-outrage-introspection cycle that we go through every time a racist gets on a podium. The same quotes by the same experts in the same radio and television shows. The same columns in the papers. The same angry comments.
Some commentators are calling for us to congratulate Botes for having the honesty to publically admit that she is a bigot. Applaud her honesty? Excuse me while I go find a bucket to be sick into. Her honesty is like waking up at three o’ clock in the morning and surprising a man who is in the process of helping himself to your television, who then says well, honestly, he thinks he deserves it more than you do. It’s honesty born of stupidity and deserves no congratulations.
We live in a country that decided that certain ideas were unworthy of us. The cornerstone of our society is the Constitution, which honours and upholds universal human rights. Clearly, some ideas are more equal than others. There’s no argument about that.
We thought we could convince everyone to be of a like mind, and clearly, we failed. Still, there are people who think that state-sanctioned bigotry is a good thing. Still, there are people who think that their poisonous prejudices are perfectly justified. At what point do we admit that some people will always be prejudiced, and no amount of convincing will change their minds? The TRC approach clearly failed. Sixteen years later, the sore is still festering, and we insist on prying it open by giving these racists a turn at the podium.
Well, enough I say. Enough, d’you hear?
I have a solution. Once again, it falls to me to save the nation.
Clearly, the bigots will always be among us. They are never going to go away. We must, therefore, create a national mood that would turn such actions into de facto suicide. Earlier this year, CNN sacked Rick Sanchez and sent him into the wilderness for airing his prejudiced views in public. That’s what we need in South Africa. Every time someone utters racist crap in public, it must mean that person will become pariah. We must make it impossible for a person to be a public racist and still have a career afterwards.
Before you get all excited, I’m not advocating literally running bigots out of town on a pole, although lord knows they’d be deserving of such treatment. The same Constitution that now protects the rights of all human beings affords the Annelie Boteses of this world the right to be stupid in public. It would, of course, be contrary to the spirit of the Constitution if we made racist utterances illegal. And yes, it may be argued in an Ivo Vegter kind of way that my proposition goes against the principles of free speech. But there’s a reason why some speech is not only frowned upon, but downright forbidden by our courts. Ask Julius Malema about that. Our laws won’t make it illegal for racists to say most of their crap, but it doesn’t prevent society from frowning upon it in ways that make it very uncomfortable to be a racist.
Through a sort of peer pressure, we must silence the racists. If they won’t change their minds, then for the sake of their jobs and having a social life, they will be silent. The beloved country will be made whole. DM
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Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson