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A remarkable story of reconciliation is a lesson for South Africa in race relations

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Kenneth Mokgatlhe is a social and political commentator.

Despite being as diverse as the rainbow, South Africa has always been fragile when it comes to race relations. Since the advent of democracy in 1994, there have been numerous attempts to bring people together. The results have not always been satisfying. The South African Human Rights Commission is central to resolving race relations disputes.

A few days before Reconciliation Day (16 December), we witnessed the most remarkable reconciliation between the erstwhile former Wits Students’ Representative Council president Mcebo Dlamini and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). 

In 2015, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) received a complaint from the SAJBD against Dlamini after he demonstrated his admiration for Adolf Hitler and delved into stereotypical anti-Semitic tropes about Jews. On 14 December, the SAHRC did sterling work by facilitating mediation between the two conflicting parties. The mediation was successful and it was encouraging to see Dlamini’s courageous ability to take responsibility for the hurtfulness of his words and apologise for his comments. 

Between 1941 and 1945, history tells us that Hitler committed a mass murder known today as the Holocaust or Shoah, whereby 6 million European Jews were brutally murdered. It is, therefore, irrational to idolise this infernal creature who murdered innocent souls. Hitler scapegoated Jews, turning fellow citizens against each other. Jews were blamed for all the problems that Germany faced following World War 1. 

We have also seen how Africans murdered each other in Rwanda in 1994 when there was a genocide committed by Hutus against Tutsis. There has never been a politician who has accounted for their crimes in this tragic battle. 

Hatred divides people and can lead to conflict, as in the case of Europe during World War 2, South Africa during apartheid years, America during slavery and to some extent today during liberal democracy as we continue to hear about movements such as #BlackLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter countering the former one. 

That is why an acknowledgement of wrongdoing is so important, as in the case of Dlamini. The SAJBD recognised this. 

Welcoming the apology from Dlamini, the SAJBD’s vice-president, Zev Krengel, said that Dlamini’s apology was truly remorseful. “The sincerity with which he acknowledged the hurt that he caused our community was palpable.”  

The SAJBD is well known for taking on people who make anti-Semitic remarks. It has a zero tolerance for this form of racism. Earlier this year, there was a historic court verdict in the Randburg Magistrates’ Court when Matome Letsoalo was handed a three-year suspended sentence for threatening and anti-Semitic tweets that he posted in June 2018. This was after Letsoalo pleaded guilty to a charge of crimen injuria lodged by the SAJBD. According to the magistrate, the harsh sentencing was to send a strong message that those who violated the Constitution by using hate speech would be punished. 

In this light, convicting Letsoalo can be seen as a deterrent to potential offenders. However, the reality is that imprisonment is not sufficient if the offender is not being rehabilitated and does not repent from his or her old ways. The decision by the SAJBD to complain to the SAHRC was commendable as it yielded much better results. Dlamini will no doubt teach others about anti-Semitism and demonstrate the importance of love for every human being despite the colour of their skin or the language spoken.

South Africa’s greatest statesman, Nelson Mandela, once opined that “no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Mandela’s remarks reflect what we have seen regarding Dlamini’s dispute with the Jewish community. 

He realised that his comments were offensive to the Jewish community, who still feel the pain of the Holocaust. In his letter of apology, Dlamini refers to the fact that he was on a journey. He noted that he was now committed to learn more about the history of the Jewish people and to teach others what he has learnt. These comments also show that Dlamini is a true leader. He is capable of introspection and showing compassion to others. 

One of the most popular civil rights movement leaders Martin Luther King Jr is reputed to have said: “One day we will learn that the heart will never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.”

We all should teach our children to love other people without looking at the colour of their skin or background. Family is the most notable societal unit that can help to ameliorate the race relation tensions that we are witnessing in South Africa in particular and the world in general. DM

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  • This contribution to the debate is reminiscent of the claim by Zuckerberg recently in the build-up to the US election, that his understanding of the holocaust had ‘evolved’ ! My question to him would be why he continues to allow the white supremacist Trump to use his Twitter account to spread his hatred? The answer seems that in terms of their rules, presidents or heads of countries cannot have their accounts suspended like they can the accounts of the ordinary you or me! So as president, in addition to handing out pardons like candy to his accomplices, he cannot loose his right to openly lie and spread hatred via twitter ! My interest is in seeing what Zuckerberg does to the twitter account of Trump the day after he is out of ‘office’ on the 20th of Jan 2021 !?

  • Hi Kanu. Zukerberg is the CEO of Facebook and not Twitter :). I agree with your sentiments though. And this is a good story about how we can and must learn from each other.

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