Defend Truth


A Request Not to Humanise Mabel Jansen

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. He is the author of ‘You Have To Be Gay To Know God’ (Kwela Books, 2018), which won the Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Literary Prize. Follow him on @SKhumalo1987 (Insta and Twitter), or like his Facebook page With Siya Khumalo.

When Gillian Schutte exposed private and public exchanges with Judge Mabel Jansen, she was inviting us to judge for ourselves whether Jansen was fit for the bench. And once the dust had settled, it became clear that Jansen has publicly and privately made racist comments about rape being a part of black culture.

Everyone rallying around her insisted she’d put her thoughts clumsily. As far as I know, Jansen has not issued an apology for her words. I’d be happy to be corrected. From what I’ve seen, Jansen seems prepared to defend her words. But once Jansen’s thoughts are “badly” or “clumsily” put, then apartheid becomes a mistake, an error in judgment, and not a heinous crime against humanity.

Varying sources have cast Jansen as a loving mother, a grieving widow whose husband passed away just as this was happening, a hard-working judge who ought not to lose her job over one indiscretion, a sufferer of compassion fatigue whose capacity for fairness and jurisprudence may have been compromised by the trauma of repeated exposure to human cruelty, the descendant of anti-apartheid activists, and, in summation, a human being.

What all these portrayals have in common is that they humanise Jansen. I submit they have no bearing on, and do not mitigate, how the public should see her. Her humanisation is problematic because Jansen has not apologised for what she said. Once we let that slide, we lose our grip on the humanity of black men and everyone else she’s written or may have unfairly ruled against.

By her own words, she has put herself in a position where the attribution of humanity is a zero-sum game. We cannot regard hers without losing other people’s. Her humanity must diminish in our eyes. She’s forcing us to choose, just as she chose many of the factors leading to the situation she’s in. Many black men (and the foregone suspicion of criminality that follows many of us on the basis of our race) did not have her luxury of choice.

To the extent that straightforwardly apologising to black people is beneath Jansen, humanisation should be kept beyond her. Her quirks, complexities, who she loves, what makes her laugh, the good she’s done, her hurts, her joys and her fears are irrelevant to the topic of her fitness for the bench and reintegration into normal daylight society. Are we to hate her? No; hate humanises. Her DNA’s similarity to ours is a freak of nature, not a normality to be assumed or embraced. We’re stuck with her.

Once an unapologetic racist presents her humanity on the basis of being a loving mom, then neither the word “love” nor “mom” has any meaning afterwards. Nothing does. The subjective experiences of those who insist she’s a wonderful mother aren’t to be argued with; they are to be pitied because that’s where the bar is for them unless and until she apologises.

Does this mean we strip her entirely of her basic human rights? It’s not necessary or constitutional to do that. We’re not the animals she makes us out to be, and we retain our humanity despite her denial of it. But humanity doesn’t rub off: our respect of her possession of homo sapiens DNA is not sufficient to grant her a place in normal, daylight society, which she has exiled herself from. Excepting she has no shame, she has no business showing her face in public. Ought not, those who grieve her losses and celebrate her triumphs with her, do so secretly until she apologises? Does humanising her not give the message that racism is just inconsequential impoliteness and not a devastating combination of prejudice and power? Jansen had both when she wrote her comments.

Someone will say, “Siya, what you’re saying is extreme!” But that comes from a refusal to see what’s at stake. I’m human. Jansen is racist. Not the other way around. She and I are not the same species. Isn’t that the belief underlying racism? That’s what it is, by itself, without help. That’s her ideology, not mine. The mutual exclusivity of shared humanity and racism is not a choice I made or must be criticised for. It’s hers. We cannot share the same daylight as though we’re the same kind of person – that’s unthinkable, inconceivable, a detestable abomination – by her choice. I insist on honouring what she’s chosen for precisely what it is. It must not be watered down or repudiated on her behalf; she has to repudiate her words herself. Until then, she absolutely cannot be humanised except at the cost of innocents. That must always be seen as her choice, not other people’s, until she apologises.

If we let Jansen back into humanity before she apologises, that endangers our humanity. Whether we have the sentimental wish to embrace her is irrelevant; she makes it impossible for us to afford to. The things she’s seen and described “clumsily” are all the more reason she should fight the structural and racial injustices that lead to the kind of crime statistics we have. We must really question her commitment to justice if she doesn’t see that; we must question ours if we don’t.

The bench is not a birthright; it’s a calling. Jansen’s reinstatement to it must be out of the question until she at least apologises. Schutte invited us to judge. That should be our starting point. DM

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