A nation that hates itself

2016-01-12 06:00

THE festive season provided much-needed downtime for South Africans after a draining and turbulent year.

The new year brought hope of better prospects and more ground-level political engagement with the local government election campaign about to kick off.

Unfortunately, some of the goodwill about 2016 evaporated with an unexpected bout of racist social media posts, and the heady reaction to them.

Estate agent Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post, in which she referred to black people as “monkeys”, motivated other like-minded white people to write racially offensive social media posts.

Some of these were in support of Sparrow, others seemed to be venting pent up feelings of having to surrender their privilege and share public facilities like beaches with black people.

One rather atrocious post on Facebook read: “Without the whites landing in SA and making it civilised all you blacks would still be living in the bush in your mud huts, with cow dung floors wearing skins and hunting for food.

“So you all go back to the bush — or better still to north Africa and leave the Western way to the whites who created it,” Carron Nadauld Gouws wrote on her Facebook wall.

It is incredible Gouws felt no shame whatsoever in exposing her extreme prejudice and hatred towards black people.

Such social media posts and interviews with Sparrow, in which she clearly had no clue why her comments were offensive and tried to justify them, inflamed the race debate.

There has been an explosion of anger over white privilege and the lack of transformation in society.

Some people exposed their own prejudice in responding to the racist messages with their own dose of bile.

A Gauteng government employee, Velaphi Khumalo, is facing disciplinary proceedings for his Facebook messages in which he called on black South Africans to do to their white compatriots what “Hitler did to the Jews”.

Like Sparrow, Khumalo is facing crimen injuria charges and complaints are being laid against them at the SA Human Rights Commission.

These people do not represent the perspectives of the majority of South Africans, but their racist rants have forced us to confront the fact that the national reconciliation project is in tatters.

The reason this is so should be the subject of national dialogue.

South Africa is not an ordinary country. Our past is defined by statutory racial discrimination and segregation that seeped into the core of society.

Therefore there needed to be a deliberate effort to foster race relations and build a national identity with respect for our diversity. But in recent years, race relations have been left to evolve unguided.

Because we now have an open society and racist laws have been revoked, it was assumed that racism would recede and eventually disappear.

Many people dwell under the misconception that we are in a utopic state of racial integration and harmony.

South Africa has many pressing priorities — eliminating poverty and joblessness being top of the agenda.

But race relations cannot be neglected as we could be one rabid social media comment away from hate attacks and the type of violence we have seen against foreign nationals.

We need to have some hard conversations too. We should ask why people like Sparrow and Gouws felt comfortable unleashing their racist views on a public platform.

Is it because they exist in a bubble where racist comments are normal in conversations and hatred of black people is not out of the ordinary?

Is it because in many parts of the country, the apartheid hierarchy remains untouched and therefore racism is allowed to thrive?

These questions need to be confronted in a mature, constructive way — not by perpetuating more hate and embarking on witch-hunts. Not everything can be viewed through the prism of racism.

South Africa is in a parlous state in many respects. Racial conflict is the last thing we need.

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