Clifton 4th and what it says about our country

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Security officers on the beach. (Supplied by PPA)
Security officers on the beach. (Supplied by PPA)

Clifton 4th Beach, December 2018 provides us with insight into how South Africa's political election year is likely to play out. If Clifton is our guide, then it will be a bumper of a year for social media – the meme makers will have more material than they know what to do with, and political commentators will be spoilt for choice.

T-shirt manufacturers will struggle to keep up and South African sheep will sleep with one eye open.

If at all.

If we were looking for a sign as to how 2019 could play out, we should spend a moment focused on the Clifton 4th Beach debacle and the series of events that transpired during December 2018.

And we should be concerned, because it displayed political posturing and opportunism at its very worst.

 Here is why:

  • The events that led up to a sheep being infamously slaughtered in a so-called cleansing ritual on the beach are far from clear;
  • According to reports, the incident where beachgoers were asked to leave the beach was not racially motivated and although there might be concerns around aspects of a private security company performing this task, there is little, if any evidence to suggest that racism was a factor in this case.

And yet, very quickly the story became about racism and the "reclaiming" of the space. The story was reported extensively in South Africa and gained traction abroad.

At the time, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article making light of it in some respects but in others I was serious. My article raised concerns about the damage that this would do to an already strained Cape Town tourism industry. There was little doubt that the city was quieter than in years prior, most likely because of the water crisis, and what it hardly needs is another event that might sway a foreign tourist towards another destination. I was extremely concerned that political opportunism was a factor and that the furore created was selfish and self-serving.

I had to publish the article on my own blog page because publications were concerned about the sensitivity of "ritual slaughter". There was a concern that it was too emotional a topic and that it was better to not publish. In fairness, one of the concerns was that over December it would be difficult to manage social media comments. Of course, I respect the right of a publication not to publish something that they are not comfortable with, but it will be a worry if this becomes a trend.

If we are not able to comment or write on a so-called ritual slaughter because of sensitivity, then there is a real chance that we will be shutting down a vital aspect of debate and discussion. If we are not able to propose a view because we are afraid, then the very notion of democracy will be undermined. I in no way suggest that we should be insensitive to the complex and painful history of the country and do not suggest that as a white male I should not be more sensitive than others, but conversations are vital. No matter how uncomfortable it may be.

The Clifton story sparked racial tensions when it was not about race. It juxtaposed South Africans against each other when the very last thing the country needs is disunity. It undermines the tourism industry and will cost jobs.

It benefited no one other than the politicians.

The role of the media is to call out duplicity. It is to expose anyone or any party that is dishonest and self-serving. It is to interrogate their motives. We didn't do this enough with the Clifton debacle but 2019 has just begun. We can self-correct, and we need to do so in preparation before election fever infects South Africa.

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

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