Today, South African discourse is littered with double standards, delegitimisation and demonisation of minorities. This is racism.
Last week, this column set out my approach to social media. I explained why people whose job requires them to keep their finger on society’s pulse should actively engage on these platforms because 1) they reveal a lot about changing circumstances and 2) they often represent the front line of a battle that needs to be fought.
In my case, Twitter in particular has alerted me to what may be a “Zeitgeist shift” in which society’s dominant principles and values change gear, to establish a “new normal”.
The gear-shift reflected on social media is extreme – like changing from fast-forward to reverse at the touch of a button.
Not long ago, it was progressive and a sign of the “new South Africa” to advance the non-racial ideal and uphold the Constitution. Today it is considered “progressive” to label people on the basis of race and judge them accordingly, reverting to the most retrogressive stereotypes, irrespective of the individual’s actions, choices or personal attributes.
This primal tribal impulse, the principle on which apartheid was based, has become entrenched on social media, and is generally ignored, as long as it targets a person associated with any racial “minority” (even those who “self-identify” as black).
I did not hear a peep of outrage this week when Julius Malema was quoted as saying:
“Chinese are like Indians. They think they’re close to whiteness. When they practice racism they even become worse than whites. There are even blacks who mimic whiteness. All of this needs to be confronted.”
As racist generalisations go, that is as clear as it gets. Julius went further than merely demonising individuals by racially categorising them, which is the common-or-garden variety of racism. He arrogated to himself the right to arbitrarily determine who qualifies to be authentically black, on the basis of their life choices.
This is a man who aspires to be the president of South Africa, and who may one day achieve that goal. His defence of the Constitution in recent weeks has been exposed as mere expedience to bring down his nemesis, Jacob Zuma; Julius does what suits his purpose. Sometimes it involves defending the Constitution, at other times undermining it, and who knows what next?
But the most concerning feature of his repeated racist tirades this week was that they caused barely a ripple. On social media, his statements were actually applauded. For a growing number of people, it is “progressive” if those claiming to speak on behalf of a racial majority target, bully and victimise people who can be labelled as representing or defending a racial minority. And woe betide anyone who considers themselves merely “South African”, sans a racial label.
This explains the torrent of abuse that Terror Lekota faced when he asked in Parliament: “Who are our people”? as he bravely defended the concept of an inclusive nationhood.
If it weren’t for people like him, the project of nation building would have receded into the mist of history. But this week’s rhetoric suggests we may even have gone beyond mere racism. We may have entered the realm of populist scapegoating in which racial minorities (and not only “whites”) are increasingly being defined as the “problem” in South Africa.
The concept of scape-goating, which dates from Biblical times, reflects the archetypal human tendency to deflect blame and responsibility for serious social problems away from the real causes. It has had horrific consequences historically, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda. But scapegoating does not always end in genocide. In Zimbabwe there was a combination of mass murder aimed at the Ndebele, and a mass exodus of minorities. Neither has solved the country’s problems.
On the contrary, they went from bad to worse. Today 90% of Zimbabweans who are still living in the country are unemployed, and a third of its citizens are refugees living elsewhere. Yet the state-owned media continues to blame whites and colonialism for the deteriorating situation.
Social media has changed many things, but it has also given a new twist to the horror of racial scape-goating, by personalising it. This involves targeting individual whites and blaming them for problems that have nothing to do with them, in the most vicious way.
I undertook last week to give an example of this. I had one in mind, and asked the young man, who had been unjustly targeted in an on-line campaign of racial vilification, for permission to use his story. I sent him a draft of this article, which ensured his anonymity, but he asked me to remove every relevant detail, because he and his family could not face the risk of further trauma.
I learnt from him that the brutal Twitter threads I had analysed were, apparently, just the tip of the iceberg. For days he and his family were hounded by every means possible including by telephone, email, and Facebook. This concerted and vicious intimidation campaign, based on a complete fiction, succeeded in silencing him and left him asking questions about his future in South Africa.
Neither he, nor any of his family members, had done anything hurtful or wrong to any person. Quite the contrary. They are making precisely the kind of contribution to our country that a developing society needs.
That is why I wanted to fight back on his behalf – but I must respect his decision not to. The price, for him, is too high. This is how intimidation destroys freedom.
But what shocked me most about this episode was the general lack of condemnation for this vile campaign of racist hate-speech. No one batted an eyelid. It was met with a collective shrug.
By way of contrast, think of what happened after Penny Sparrow’s racist post.
How can this double standard be accepted as normal or justifiable in a constitutional democracy?
As I try to make sense of this, I recall what Natan Sharansky, a Russian refusenik who spent nine years in a soviet prison, had to say about how to distinguish legitimate criticism from racism – in his case anti-Semitism.
He came up with the famous 3-D test. You can distinguish legitimate criticism from racism, he suggested, by asking:
If the answer to all three is Yes, you have an undeniable example of racism.
It is an excellent yardstick.
Today, South African discourse is littered with double standards, delegitimisation and demonisation of minorities.
Not long ago such statements were still considered outrageous. I well recall the angry public response when Julius Malema made pejorative generalisations about the way Indians allegedly treat black employees; or when he lambasted a journalist for demonstrating “white tendencies”; or the “hate speech” conviction for singing “Kill the Boer”. Or when he said in November 2016: “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now.”
This week there was not even a ripple when he lambasted South Africans of Chinese and Indian descent. And there was merely a murmur (primarily confined to the ranks of the DA) when he announced that he was… “going to remove a mayor of PE. Not because he stole the money or anything. Because we want to teach these white people that we mean business when we say expropriation of land without compensation…. We are going for your white man in PE. We are going to cut the throat. Just to show you that we too don’t owe you anything.”
There you have all three Ds in one vile quote.
As for demonisation, it creeps up slowly and soon becomes established. When UCT #FeesMustFall students burnt artworks at the campus they were quoted as celebrating the burning of “whiteness”.
It has become standard “analysis” on campuses to trace all South Africa’s problems to the arrival of whites in South Africa and to label their descendants “1652s”. Or insulting and threatening whites at public protests, as if they have no business being at these rallies with their black compatriots. This attitude soon spills out into broader society.
Delegitimisation occurs when, for example, Jacob Zuma told Parliament that minorities have fewer rights than the majority. Or when people are told they may not self-identify as African if they are not the “right” colour, no matter how long ago their forefathers arrived in the country. Or when they are lambasted for wearing a “doek” if they are not the “right” colour. Or when they are told they cannot express an opinion, even if it is objectively true, because they are white. Or when politicians define constitutional rights as magnanimous “favours” conferred by a racial majority on a minority.
All these have become so normal now, they are hardly reported. We are like the proverbial frog in heating water. Except for one difference. The frog begins contentedly, in cold water, but its complacence ends as the temperature rises. In our analogous situation, it is the other way around.
This does not mean minorities should run away. On the contrary! We need to defend the Constitution together with the millions of black South Africans who share that vision, and actively work at building a non-racial, inclusive society where everyone’s contributions are celebrated. Crucially, this requires an honest diagnosis of the real obstacles to progress, not seeking scapegoats to avoid facing hard facts.
We dare not meekly acquiesce to the delegitimisation strategy by remaining silent because we are told we are the wrong colour to tell the truth. We all have an equal right – and an equal obligation – to do so. DM
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