Racist attack

2008-09-03 00:00

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) is offering a reward of R10 000 to anyone who can identify the three white men who made a racist attack against a black woman during Saturday’s Test.

It was a small incident involving only four people, and lasting only a few minutes, and in most countries such a distasteful occurrence, while deemed objectionable, would be dealt with appropriately and forgotten. It would not be allowed to detract from the splendid play and the enjoyment of the 54 000 people in the stadium. It would not have dimmed the glow of the victory of the Springboks (the most racially “transformed” side ever) over an Australian side that had resoundingly beaten them a week before.

But South Africa is not “most countries”. Here, because of the legacy of past hurt, the incident has been given enormous publicity, elevating it from a petty example of bullying, racist nastiness to the status of a major political event — one overshadowing the glory of the Springbok game and the euphoria of rugby enthusiasts countrywide.

And, indeed, small though it now appears, there is much about the occurrence to deplore. The victim, Ziningi Shibambo, a sophisticated businesswoman hosting corporate guests, was accosted at half-time by the three who, presumably inebriated, vented on her their anger at the perceived hijacking of the country, and now of the one remaining white sport, by black people. In itself that was bad enough. What made it very much worse, however, was the fact that of the many people streaming past and observing what was happening, not one so much as paused. No one stopped to remonstrate with the louts; no one offered to intercede, to help the victim or to show solidarity. Common human decency seemed notably absent.

Why was this? Was it (at best) a kind of racial passivity — something born of fear and especially prevalent in Gauteng where violent crime is rife, and where people are conditioned not to intervene, not to help, lest they put themselves at risk? Or, much worse, was it — since most rugby spectators are likely to have been white — a race-based complicity in this racist act?

Whatever the answer, none of us can afford to sit back and do nothing. The current publicity draws attention to the incident and expresses deep disapproval of it. Identifying, naming, shaming and punishing the culprits may act as a future deterrent. But neither of these things will carry us far down the road leading to the place where all South Africans, of whatever race, gender, social or cultural background, see one another simply as people and not as symbolic of some kind of threat. Sadly, we begin to realise just how long that road is and how long it will take for the necessary changing of hearts and minds.

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