It is a verbal war and, as always in such cases, opportunism proliferates and rational analysis gives way to demagogic pronouncements that often stoke the fires of prejudice while professing to dampen them, usually in the name of justice.
Politicians of all stripes, whether of the parliamentary or extra-parliamentary variety, are the main culprits as they compete to gain the votes or the support of sections of the public. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) commander-in-chief Julius Malema provided a classic example last week with his support for jailed former AbaThembu king, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo.
But opportunism also extends into the media and business where uncritical support, whether tacit or open, for proclaimed and simplistic solutions is seen as a means to curry favour, usually with political factions perceived to be powerful.
Political parties, especially during election campaigns, can also be expected to make capital out of any opportunity to score points against their opponents. And it was an opportunity not to be missed when the ANC discovered that Penny Sparrow, who posted a racist rant on social media, was a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
But just as one sparrow does not a summer make, one or even a clutch of racists does not taint an entire political party if that party professses democratic values. Where members of political parties transgress, they should be held to account and - as happened to Sparrow - be suspended, pending a disciplinary, for bringing their parties into disrepute. And they should be expelled.
Legal action must follow hate speech
However, in cases where comments go beyond racism into hate speech as defined by the constitution, then legal action should follow. And stiff penalties should apply to anyone found guilty of advocating “hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.
“Incitement to cause harm” is a crucial distinction. For example, the social media comment by Velaphi Khumalo that last week caused a furore probably qualifies in this regard. Referring to “whites”, Khumalo tweeted: “We must act as Hitler did to the Jews.” He has been suspended from his government job.
Worryingly, this frenzy about racism has deflected attention from deep-rooted problems such as poverty and joblessness and has promoted a reactionary knee-jerk call to ban racism and racists. Among those making this call are self-proclaimed non-racists of various ethnic origins and skin shades.
Yet anyone claiming to be non racist - or non-sexist - is either deluded or a liar. In a society where sexism and racism are deeply ingrained, it is impossible not to be, perhaps unconsciously, afflicted by elements of such prejudices.
So while a non-racist, non-sexist and fully egalitarian society is an admirable aim, it is one that must be struggled for until, in the perhaps quite distant future, the idea of racism or of sexism becomes meaningless.
Until then, anyone honestly professing this egalitarian ideal can only be an anti-racist and anti-sexist. The same, of course, applies to homophobia and to other -isms and phobias that denigrate “the other” in any society.
In South Africa, where the geography of apartheid has been maintained by successive governments, social divisions continue to maintain, even encourage, historic prejudices. The limited, but significant deracialisation of the wealthier strata in society has also done noting to curb this; it has probably strengthened the patronising and fundamentally racist notion among self-styled white liberals that some of “them” can actually become as superior as “us”.
Then there is language - and English is as good an example as any - that contains many value-loaded expressions and cultural allusions that can be readily misunderstood, especially in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society. There are also many casual expressions inherited from our deeply racist past that can be hurtful and are, in essence, racist. These cannot be dealt with by legislation, but by education; by discussion and debate.
The myth of the rainbow nation is at last being laid to rest. But in order to build real unity in diversity the demagogues on all sides must be confronted, along with the racists and purveyors of hate speech.