Defend Truth


Racist model has been shouted down. Now what?

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.

Now that the foul-mouthed Jessica Leandra Dos Santos has suffered the opprobrium and fury of a nation, not to mention the loss of sponsorship deals, where to next? We’re supposed to be building a non-racial country, not just shouting down those who offend the sensibilities of our Constitution.

I’ve been called a kaffir a few times before. The first time was when I was riding my bike with my friends in the Tugela River valley, and we happened upon a large Toyota Hilux blocking the road at the bottom of a steep hill. My bike was the only one with dodgy brakes. The result was that I hit the side of the bakkie at quite a high speed, and from it emerged a huge white man in a two-tone khaki shirt and those tiny blue shorts that somehow pass for rugby gear in this country. I apologised profusely, but not before a stream of spittle and blasphemy had shot out of his mouth, navigated through his sumptuous white beard and splattered on my face.

I must have been about seven or eight years old, so I didn’t quite catch his Afrikaans rant. But you cannot mistake the word “kaffir”. In those two syllables, all the hatred in South Africa is contained. There’s no point in trying to explain why this word cuts so deeply if you’ve never been made to feel inferior or subhuman in your own country – personally, one of the things it reminds me of is the devastation and heartbreak wrought by apartheid upon my family to this day – but the reaction by any black person to such a word should enlighten anyone to the fact that it is an extremely loaded one.

I never mentioned the incident of the large Afrikaans man to any older people because I knew they would not do anything about it. It’s never a good idea to upset u-baas, you see.

Thankfully, these days racism is an unlawful and criminal offence. The courts are mandated to do something about it, and so is the South African Human Rights Commission. Again, why go to all this trouble if we’re all making a big fuss about nothing?

The rulings of these courts flow both ways – suspended ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was famously barred from singing Ayesaba amagwala on the basis that the lyrics wielded by him amounted to hate speech.

You’ve probably followed the “racist model” controversy of the last couple of days. What galvanised me to mobilise the masses (so to speak) is the fact that the offending model in question, Jessica Leandra Dos Santos, is apparently just 20 years old. There was also a status update being sent around Facebook in which a white university student, also apparently in his early 20s, had that rant so dearly loved by white men of a certain stripe: black people owe everything to whites so don’t check me funny, bru.

This blows Professor Jonathan Jansen’s theory that born-frees are unencumbered by the prejudice and hatred of their forebears right out of the water. Sorry, but where does a 20-year-old blonde girl learn to use that kind of language, to the extent that she thinks it’s okay to say it in a public forum, and then react with surprise at the uproar?

I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it’s a word and sentiment bandied about easily in the environment in which she grew up. To her, the consideration that this might be enormously offensive to the majority of her fellow citizens never crossed her mind. It seems like nobody ever stood up when she heard “kaffir” being thrown around and pointed out that it’s a racist thing to say.

She’s not the only one who is happily unaware of what this particular word means to black people. “You see to me a K2FF3R is a person that steal (sic), kill (sic), rape (sic), commit (sic) fraud(,) drives bad (sic), (and is a) woman and child abuser etc  etc,” one commenter on a News24 story wrote.

A lot of households in this country are doing a fine job of ensuring that racism will be alive and well in South Africa half a decade from today.

But the difference between Dos Santos and that old man whose Hilux bore scratches from my bike is that I do believe the former can still be saved. Diversity classes (or whatever you call racism rehabilitation), where she gets to know how other people in the country think and live, should do the trick.

There is a school of thought which says that racism should be protected by freedom of speech – it’s the “ag, get over it” retort expressed in more eloquent terms. I am extremely happy that our Constitution and our courts reject that sort of thinking vehemently. Call them the “PC brigade” if you want, but racist thought has had too many real consequences for too many people in South Africa for us to pretend that we live in some sort of race utopia where such things are just water off a duck’s back.

The barbarism of the Reitz Four certainly proves that we have a long way to go before we can claim that South Africa is non-racial.

There is something that we can do to commit to a truly non-racial society. The tit-for-tat approach favoured by Steve Hofmeyr (who is convinced that he is in the middle of a genocide) and articulated in yet another News24 comment saying, “stop the farm murders, stop the hijacking & killing people in front of their children/wifes (sic)/husbands and the hate will stop” is just going to end up angering even younger people, ensuring that racial tension survives for much longer than it deserves to.

Another tweet has garnered a mild level of anger on Twitter. This time, a black woman tweeted and said: “Dear Peter Mokaba… I wish all White People were killed when you sang ‘Kill the Boer’ we wouldn’t be experiencing @JessicaLeandra’s racism right now”. She’s been reported to the Human Rights Commission too.

It is high time we accept that we are all highly racialised creatures. If you grew up in South Africa, you are a creation of a racist culture. We all are. Our country was designed to keep people apart, so of course social cohesion across the country is going to be enormously difficult to achieve.

It seems like we’ve given up. We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but its mandate never really touched the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps it’s time to establish mini TRCs in every community in the country because this kind of racist rant won’t end here. Another Steve Hofmeyr, Annelie Botes or Jessica Leandra dos Santos will happen along soon, and we’ll start this all over again.

What gave me hope after this weekend is the enthusiasm with which some of my fellow born-frees took up the idea of re-examining and talking about racial tension in our country. If the older generations are tired of talking about this, we must pick up the mantle and run with it. DM

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