We appear to be incapable of holding honest, constructive discussions with one another as compatriots. Instead, we talk past one another and seem to excel at hurling insults at one another. Mandela’s illusion of “a rainbow nation” is something of the past.
Is it too unrealistic to expect that we should all be worried about the current state of affairs? I hope not. Personally, I am very worried about state of affairs in our country — and I think all right-thinking South Africans should be too.
Racial insults and counterinsults are flung around with apparent gay abandon, some going far as frightening threats of violence against fellow compatriots who look or sound different from them. Some political parties have shamelessly resorted to fuelling racism, while some do so indirectly by opportunistically labelling as racist anyone with whom they do not agree or anything with which they disagree, especially if that happens to be criticism of the government, the president or the governing party.
Even more concerning and frightening is the fact that this apparently all-pervasive malady has now afflicted a growing percentage of our youth, most of whom were born during our democratic dispensation. For instance, how is it justifiable for a young black man at a tertiary institution to eulogise so despicable a figure as Hitler or to wear a T-shirt or carry a placard insulting a whole section of the population and, worse still, calling for genocide against them?
Yes, the legacy of apartheid is very much alive and stares us stubbornly in the face every day. Yes, a frighteningly high percentage of our white compatriots are in denial about the terrible system of apartheid which benefited each one of them handsomely and whose legacy continues to exist. And, yes, some among them have shown frightening levels of arrogance and gross insensitivity to the feelings of their black compatriots.
That notwithstanding, the answer can never be an adoption by black South Africans of the same ignorance, prejudice and arrogance. Nor is it the turning of the other cheek. The time for that has long passed, if ever there was such a time.
Although in the main the product of ignorance and fear, no doubt compounded in the post-1994 era by competition for scare opportunities and resources to which most — if not all — of our white compatriots traditionally believed themselves to be entitled, racism should never to tolerated in a civilised, democratic society. Instead, it should be punished by ruthlessly invoking the laws of our country.
That should happen regardless of the identity of those behind it. Similarly, purveyors of racism should be quartered and drawn, as correctly happened to Penny Sparrow, and persecuted accordingly. There should be no corner of our country — be it the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal or some of our top universities — in which racists of whatever hue can take refuge.
However, care should be taken to ensure that an all-out war on racism does not offer a shield for censorship. Like racism, censorship should remain in our bygone era of apartheid which was justly decried by the civilised world as a crime against humanity.
Freedom of speech is very important for a democracy. Those with whom we disagree have as much right to it as those with whom we agree. That is why it is vital that the fight against racism is not abused and reduced to a fight against freedom of speech.
Therefore, it was very unfortunate that the comments by radio personality Gareth Cliff and Standard Bank economist Chris Hart were incorrectly labelled as racist. Neither comment was, in and of itself, racist. Instead, both represented fair comment: they were articulations of views to which both men are entitled. Like everybody else, they are entitled to hold and express views or opinions, even if those views are wrong. However, like everybody else, they are not entitled to hate speech, which is a crime.
In his comment, Cliff made the critical point that freedom of speech is an important right protected by our Constitution. Yes, by asserting that right following Penny Sparrow’s gratuitous insult of blacks, whom she called “monkeys”, Gareth Cliff associated himself with her insult of black South Africans and defended her right to call us monkeys. His statement, per se, was not racist, but his contention that calling his black compatriots “monkeys” is free speech is itself racist.
On the other hand, there was absolutely nothing wrong or objectionable about Hart’s comment. Yes, some people may not have liked his analysis, but it was nothing more than his opinion. Personally, I share his concerns: inadvertently, this government has done a great job of fostering a culture of entitlement. I also agree with him that it is untenable to have a growing civil service and a burgeoning social security system and a small number of taxpayers.
The government can do much better in getting historically disadvantaged compatriots to understand and appreciate the fact that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities. While the government has an important responsibility to deliver on its promises to the electorate, including on social services, it has an equally important task to get South Africans to understand that they have just as vital a task to do things both for themselves and for the country.
That is the essence of John F Kennedy’s moving exhortation, in his inaugural address as president of the US in January 1961, to his compatriots: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you —— ask what you can do for your country.” Instead of routinely making unrealistic promises during each election, that is the kind of message our leaders desperately need to tell ordinary South Africans all the time.
It is, therefore, grossly unfair that Hart found himself pilloried and suspended from his job for expressing an opinion simply because some disagree with that opinion. He is owed an apology and Standard Bank needs to grow some spine and recall him to work.
At a time like this, when the degree of political contestation in the country is at its fiercest in many years, it is understandable — but no less deplorable — that the governing party would be inclined to tar and feather anybody even mildly critical of it. Such people will most likely to be called all sorts of names: racists, uncle Toms, “clever blacks”, coconuts, etc. We should brace ourselves for that reality, but we should never allow ourselves to be fooled.
That is the nature of politics. During the McCarthyism era in the US, everybody who disagreed with Senator Joe McCarthy and his methods was a communist or communist empathiser, as was the case in South Africa during the apartheid era when those opposed to apartheid were called communists, communist lovers or terrorists. Labelling one’s opponents is an age-old trick in politics.
What South Africa needs to do, though, is to eradicate the by-now-dominant culture of impunity. We need to ensure that there are real and visible consequences for wrongdoing. That is a culture that we have to develop and inculcate in every person in the country.
That means that people who vandalise public and private property during a strike should never again be able to get their employers to agree not to press charges against them as a condition of ending the strike. It means that students at our tertiary institutions should never again vandalise property during protests and still be able to get universities not to discipline or lay charges against them when the said protests are over. It means that it should never again be possible for some misguided hotheads to wear clothes or carry placards with inflammatory statements like “F..k White People” or even “Kill White People” at our universities and not have charges of hate speech and/or crimen injuria laid against them.
We need to eradicate the culture of impunity. Instead, we need to go out of our ways to ensure that there are clear and visible consequences for every wayward or improper action, whenever or by whomever it might be. Failure to do that will certainly sink South Africa in the long term. DM
Kaizer M. Nyatsumba is a writer, a senior business executives and a PhD candidate.