Racial exclusion

2008-02-29 00:00

Last week's exclusion of white journalists from a media briefing with African National Congress president Jacob Zuma organised by the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) continues to stir national debate and raise crucial questions. The passage of time has shown them to be complex.

Freedom of association is an admirable liberal right, guaranteed by the Constitution. It entitles private organisations to set rules of membership and procedure. By the same token, interest groups are free to lobby politicians around issues of specific concern - cultural and religious groupings spring to mind. For instance, Jacob Zuma has in the past met representatives of the Afrikaans-speaking community without raising controversy.

But the exclusion of individuals belonging to the same profession simply on the grounds of their apparent skin colour involves broader, more serious issues of deep public concern. If the reverse had been the case and blacks had been excluded by whites, the air would surely be thick with accusations of racism.

Heavy-handed action by the FBJ reinforced the perverse notion, popular in some circles, that racism is a specifically white preserve. It also played into the hands of those who hold the dangerous belief that the hurt and injustice of the past somehow justify new wrongs. And it perpetuates a pathology in South African society that continues to classify people in superficial ways rather than see their individual worth.

Above all, the decision by Zuma to allow himself to be party to, and then justify, what appeared to be an act of racism was both deplorable and ill-judged. He aspires to be the national president, but given this behaviour is he capable of displaying the inclusiveness vital to South Africa's future? He acted as a mere politician, not like a leader.

Enjoyment of rights always carries with it a burden of responsibility. This was honourably discharged by those black journalists who walked out of the FBJ briefing. They recognised that legal rights occupy one side of the coin. On the other is the obligation to behave in ways that embrace all the nation's people, recognise the fragile condition of South Africa's society and democracy, and accept moral accountability.

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