Is South Africa trying its best to prompt a South African version of the horrendous Christchurch massacre or an upscale repeat of the callous Wit Wolf killings in Pretoria or those by Sibusiso Madubela at the Tempe Military base in Bloemfontein?
This week’s xenophobic attacks on foreigners in Durban and the verdict by the Human Rights Commission exonerating Julius Malema from hate speech may in future be described as significant road signs pointing towards tragedies in waiting.
Race and culture have always been tectonic plates causing friction. In South Africa, the apartheid proponents foolishly thought they could ensure continental drift between a Johannesburg and Gazankulu and between Port Elizabeth and Transkei. This wishful thinking took place whilst the economy and transportation networks ensured the pieces were moving irrevocably closer together. This led to the Soweto riots of ’76 and the intensifying tremors of protest, unrest and states of emergency in the 1980s.
The De Klerk February 1990 announcement, a reconciliatory Mandela and a spirit of renewal trumped the forces of the friction for some time and the 1994 elections brought in a period of relative calm. A Rainbow-nation Humpty Dumpty sat proudly on the buttress of the new South Africa.
That wall experienced some shaking and cracking during the Mbeki years and after the ANC’s dumping of him in favour of Jacob Zuma, racial friction has come more to the fore. Racial and cultural prejudice parade proudly on Twitter, talk radio and in website comments.
Does pressing the pause button transform incitement into acceptable speech?
The Human Rights Commission’s finding that Malema’s utterances that he was not “for now calling for the slaughter of white people” and that the majority of Indians were racist, did not amount to “hate speech”, will be used as an encouragement to test the boundaries even more. It is as if the Human Rights Commission considered the utterance as something untasteful but, since the pause button on the remote was pressed by the (not) “for now”, it will only become hate speech when Malema would press the “play” button.
To put it differently, the HRC apparently considers smoking in a dynamite factory as acceptable since it has not as yet caused an explosion.
The lessons from New Zealand are stark: in several indices, New Zealand ranked amongst the top countries for tolerance, the Legatum Prosperity Index indicates that after Canada and Norway, New Zealand was the most tolerant towards immigrants.
Marmite on toast and the underbelly of racism
Given that tolerance reputation, the winning contribution on Open Borders in The Economist’s The World in 2019, by Denzel Chung (19), an undergraduate student at the University of Otago, makes interesting reading:
“Moving from Malaysia to New Zealand, our family has seen it all. We have learned (albeit reluctantly) to put Marmite on toast as well as in rice congee. They have learned (albeit reluctantly) to use peanuts and spices in satay sauce, instead of peanut butter and cream. We have also seen a darker underbelly, the seething resentment and implicit discrimination occasionally boiling over into outright racism. A tolerance of immigrants indicates at best an apathetic disregard for them and at worst, an active hostility kept under wraps simply because they are perceived as necessary. We should look past just celebrating immigrants’ bank balances and university degrees, to also see their unique culture, perspectives and ways of life. We must no longer simply stand for tolerance of immigrants, but we must stand for accepting, respecting and understanding them too.” (The World in 2019, The Economist)
Ironic, coming from such a tolerant country?
There is even more irony in the fact that the massacre occurred in a city named Christchurch where the formidable export product – the rugby team – is called The Crusaders, a name recalling those marauding forces that pillaged, murdered and raped in the Dark Ages in the name of Christ.
Wit Wolf Barend Steenkamp (murdering eight people simply because they were black South Africans) and Sibusiso Madubela (walking from office to office murdering seven white South Africans), should remind us what could happen again.
An outlier, or an outcome as in Rwanda?
South Africans should step back from the brink and refrain from playing on racial prejudice. Even in the field of business tensions are fanned on racial lines:
- Formal businesses are (in many instances in the public sector) viewed with suspicion, animosity and antipathy;
- There is a policy framework with growing burdens of prescriptive regulations that strangle especially the SMEs;
- Large construction companies are held ransom by the construction mafia.
Fanning tensions by emphasising an “us-them-divide” is not good for the social fibre of the country. And it also does not contribute to a conducive investment environment.
The Christchurch massacre was caused by an ideological outlier. In the South African context, a similar event would be viewed as the natural outcome of policies of hatred. The latter has all the potential to quickly develop into a situation like that in Rwanda in 1994.
Has the Human Rights Commission just handed Malema the matches to light another cigarette in dynamite factory?
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