Howard Feldman

Divisive language that have real impacts

2019-05-29 17:52

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South African politicians have a responsibility to tone down their language and to stop trying to divide South Africans along racial lines. No good comes out of it, writes Howard Feldman.

The brutal murder of two young people as they sat in their car and waited for a friend to bring them diesel, has shocked a crime-wary South Africa.

Johanco Fleischman, 19, and Jessica (Jess) Kuhn, 21, were shot dead on Sunday after a group walked past their vehicle and noted them sitting inside. It was broad daylight and the couple had run out of fuel.

According to British tabloid, Daily Star, the alleged perpetrators muttered "umlungu", meaning "white person" before attacking them. Johanco was shot multiple times, after which the perpetrators leaned into the "bakkie" and fired one fatal shot at Jess, killing her instantly. The couple were white. Two black employees sat at the back of the vehicle. They were severely beaten and traumatised. They were not, however shot.   

In light of the above, I nervously posed the following question to the listeners of my morning show: "Does calling someone "umlungu" prior to a crime make this a hate crime, or is it just a shocking crime perpetrated by racists? To add complexity to the question, I asked if the utterings of politicians such as Julius Malema about killing white people might have contributed to the event?

Admittedly, I was concerned as to how the conversation would go. For good reason.

Engagement in the topic was significant and the responses were predictably emotional. Many felt that it wasn't necessarily the "umlungu" usage that indicated racism, but the fact that only the white victims were killed pointed to it having been a hate crime. Other listeners felt that this was a crime and the fact that the word was used was not indication enough of it being a hate crime. Perhaps, some suggested, it was just a description of who was sitting in the car?

All felt that no matter these events, that South African politicians have a responsibility to tone down their language and to stop trying to divide South Africans along racial lines. No good, it was felt, comes out of it.

One of my co-hosts argued that she, as a black woman, would be equally at risk as the young couple were, were she to run out of fuel on the same road. She therefore could not see the crime as being about race, but rather a reflection of the tragic state of affairs of South Africa, especially as it relates to crime and safety.

Use of the word "umlungu" also came into focus. In my experience, I have never had the word used to describe me to having been in an offensive manner. On the contrary, I have only ever been called an "umlungu" in an affectionate way (I think). At least in front of me.

The dilemma is this: If indeed the crime was a racially motivated one, then denial of the hate factor is to deny ourselves of having a critical and vital conversation. On the other hand, if it was a vicious robbery and murder and we make it about race, then we risk spending critical time and focus on completely the wrong thing.

Through all this, we cannot forget that a young couple were murdered. A couple that had done nothing to deserve the horror that awaited them when they woke up on Sunday morning. Through all this, we cannot forget that two families are in mourning. That they will most likely never get over the overwhelming emotions that will forever accompany this past weekend. Their dreams will be haunted by the pain of the loss and tormented by their visualisation of their children's last moments.

We will more than likely never know what went on in the minds of those evil enough to murder. We might never find an answer to our dilemma. And even if we do, I doubt that it will ever make sense to the majority of South Africans who are good, kind people.

What is important is that we make sure that we each work on ourselves to eliminate any form of prejudice and hate, with regard to our speech, and that we send a clear message to all in government that we will not tolerate it when they try and divide us.

- Howard Feldman is a keynote speaker and analyst. He is the author of three books and is the morning talk show host on ChaiFM.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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