Are we fighting racism the wrong way?

Koos Kombuis

When I was 16, in the wake of an existential crisis, I had a magnificent spiritual experience which was very meaningful to me and which gave me great personal joy.

As a so-called “newborn Christian”, I sought the company of other people who had made similar commitments, and, after a long search through various Christian denominations, I finally found my niche with a nameless group of people who met for fellowship in a private home on a weekly basis.

This little group was led by a charismatic leader who commanded absolute obedience and who appeared to be very wise. Among the esoteric stuff this man taught us, was how to deal with what he called “demon possession”.

Demons? I sure didn’t want any demons! I submitted myself utterly to the guidance of this man, hoping no demon would ever enter me.

In time, however, it started to feel as if this group of people had become to focus on “demon possession” to the exclusion of everything else. My little cult became a very dark and paranoid place to be in. Traumatic exorcisms were common, and fellow Christians developed the habit of pointing fingers at their friends, saying things like “I detect evil in you, my brother...”

I related this awkward little tale not because I want to cast doubt on the religion of Christianity, nor the existence of evil in the form of demons. I simply don’t know whether demons really exist and whether they really possess people. What scared me about this particular sect, however, and what eventually led me to leave their ranks, was the feeling that, by focusing so much on the evil in themselves, they were actually encouraging it to the point of actively wallowing in it. Their extreme negativity completely obscured the initial joy and love they had towards one another as young Christians.

During the last few weeks, when accusations of racism abounded on social media and in the press, when the national debate seemed to be about nothing else, I must admit I have started feeling that same sense of dread that I felt as a young men before I left that nameless cult.

As a country, we had a dramatic experience of “rebirth” during the middle '90s. Everyone was on a high. We all felt to be part of the New South Africa.

Since then, things have changed.

Though most of us experience very few incidents of racism in our daily lives – on ground level, South Africans of various cultures seem to be getting on quite fine, thank you! – the media abound with reported utterances of the most horrific prejudice and anger. If this trend is to be believed, if everybody was as rude as these quoted individuals seem to be, as South Africans we are all at each others’ throats practically all the time.

Let me set one thing straight. I hate racism as much as every other thinking South African. I have on occasion walked out of rooms and public places where racist comments have been overheard. I try to cultivate friendships only with people who are open-minded and tolerant. Everyone who visits our house, know that words like the “k word” is not permissible under our roof, or in front of our children.

So, when I read the horrific things that unpleasant woman tweeted from a New Year’s Day beach in Durban, I almost gagged with revulsion. My first reaction was similar to that of many Tweetonians: people like this woman should be gagged, shamed, perhaps even jailed!

But would that help? In the long run? Really?

But what if we, as a country, become just like the little cult I was part of in my youth? What if, by trying so hard to eradicate this evil, we actually accentuate it, and encourage it to grow?

I have discovered, during the course of my professional dealings in the world of journalism, literature and music, that there is only one type of person I dislike more than the common stupid garden variety racist: the slightly more devious person who hides his racism under a veneer of political correctness.

This kind of subtle prejudice is sometimes very hard to spot.

It would be even harder to spot if the sword of a jail sentence hung over the heads of all South Africans. People would become painfully insincere. I wouldn’t know who to unfriend on Facebook. I will forever worry whether my nearest and dearest are harbouring hidden “demons from the Old South Africa”!

During the last few years, racial issues have been very much on the foreground in our politics, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else. Even well-meant policies such as affirmative action and the insistence on racial quota’s in sport seemed to stress the existence of racial barriers between people rather than remove them. We have progressed from being officially a racist country – the Old South Africa – to being, officially at least, a race-obsessed country.

Having said that, I admit that I honestly don’t know if there are other ways to redress the inequalities of the past rather than focusing on the race thing. Of course the inequalities of the past should be redressed. But I can’t help noticing how, partly because of policies such as these, and partly because of everything else that sprung up around these policies, we are still nowhere near the ideal of a truly non-racial country, a place where race is hardly ever mentioned or even noticed, neither in the work-place nor at social get-togethers.

This is a conundrum. Surely racism is wrong. It should be seen as a crime. But what if the damage done by the witch-hunt after racists becomes more pervasive than the damage done by the original offensive racist slurs themselves? What if we introduce anti-racist laws, only to have them misinterpreted and used to gag valid opinions?

Will such laws spell the end of all nuance, the death of satire?

Will we be forever doomed, as South Africans, to face each other with hostility across this man-made abyss, hurling insults at one another or – even worse – being afraid of entering into any meaningful dialogue out of sheer fear we might accidentally say the wrong thing?

I sincerely hope not...

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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