Nearing the tipping point?

2008-07-22 00:00

IN 2002 when Mbongeni Ngema’s revolting hate-filled song, intended to give life to a waning career, caused an uproar and both the song and its author were relegated to the dust heap where they belong, it was obvious that our fractured society had underlying issues that would need to be addressed. The situation emphasised that all hate speech and divisive pronouncements and actions would have to be met head on and no one would be exempt from scrutiny. Since then we have gradually seen a reversion to old ways, people who should know better making the odd nasty, racist and demeaning remarks that violate the Constitution. We tend to excuse some of this as rhetoric and part of the unprincipled behaviour of those who do so. Time has shown the error of overlooking these transgressions. Vigilance regarding racial stereotyping, demeaning comments and disguised and undisguised racism has to be an ongoing exercise.

When xenophobic attacks on African refugees (for want of a better word to describe people who had sought refuge of one kind or another here) took place, the government was often conspicuous by its absence. Concerned relief agencies and private citizens had to pick up the slack. How could this have happened? The government was so busy fighting its own internal wars that nothing, even cruelty towards and the killing of poor and defenceless people, could get in the way of that. Pretending that there was no major problem, the government evaded responsibility and by relocating the refugees away from public gaze, made them invisible.

Taking their cue from the government, others who should have aided the helpless also added to their woes and some policemen abused the refugees and told them to go home or used the derogatory word makwerekwere against them. Some health workers refused to render assistance and demanded proof of identity, going against their training and the oath of their profession. The question on everyone’s lips was, where had this hatred come from and how could it happen here? The truth is that very little work is being done by the ruling party to make our country a truly unified nation or to educate those who came through the apartheid years to envisage a new society and for that new society to be a lived experience. When in a tight corner they resort to divisive abuse.

With this background one would have thought that in the prevailing climate they would have gone easy on the nasty racial rhetoric. The Minister of Labour’s ugly comments about the South African Chinese community, who dared to go to court to gain acceptance as previously disadvantaged in terms of Black Economic Empowerment, are a case in point. The labour minister did not oppose this in court but once the judgment was given he went into full overdrive.

The Chinese community of South African descent was a small, marginalised community under the previous regime and remains so. They would barely make the tiniest dent in any possible empowerment deals, but so avaricious is the new elite and so concerned to milk every last cent that even this is too much. Hence the minister’s vicious attack on them regarding labour practice and language. This is a minister who has tabled all sorts of legislation dealing with infringements of law where it pertains to labour practice and so forth.

Having been caught out, his claim that he is not a racist is not enough. Racism cannot just be wished away by denial: words and deeds are what count. Taking their cue from him, a section of the African business sector in the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc), not to be outdone, also waded in. Ordinary South Africans could only watch with dismay. But dismay is one thing: what we forget is that when those in leadership positions shoot from the hip without regard for the values to which we aspire or the Constitution they are supposed to uphold, they open the door to the unintended consequences — in this case fuelling intolerance and racial stereotyping. In some countries this kind of behaviour would have resulted in an outcry and forced resignation.

This reaction from the Labour Minister means that he thought that the court should not have pronounced favourably on the question of Chinese identity and that only those judgments that suit the ruling party and its members are acceptable, and any others can be treated with contempt. Shades of other similar threats.

It brought into sharp focus something I have pondered lately. At which point does fear of “other” translate into hatred of “other” and lead to xenophobia? At what point does propaganda tip the scales from mere strong, irrational feeling to become acts of inhumanity? I wondered whether the tipping point in Rwanda was the hate-filled propaganda that came from the radio. If there is a tipping point then how much more of this insidious hatred assailing us from all sorts of directions will be a tipping point in South Africa? (Here I deliberately omit state fascism and genocide as in Nazi Germany.)

The events of the past weeks have greatly troubled my mind. Because if we look at it in this context of hatred towards others then all talk of killing, whether it be for Jacob Zuma or against some cooked-up counter-revolutionary, only fuels hatred. Witness how

easily the DA became the scapegoat in this climate. We already live in a violent society. Being able to treat simple English words as if their real meaning is something that can be twisted into another meaning is the height of deceit. Playing with words is one thing but playing with words that can mean life or death in certain circumstances is quite another. Once again, when will the tipping point be reached, even if this war talk is grandstanding and intimidation?

If it is grandstanding and intimidation then why is the Human Rights Commission (HRC) treading so softly? It has been given the clout under the Constitution to deal with the serious matter of human rights and cannot allow itself to be intimidated. Once it looks as if it is failing in its duty there will be a crisis of credibility. That would be a danger signal no one can afford.

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