Johannesburg - Race relations in South Africa are so bad that it could lead to civil war, retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe has warned.
Ngoepe told a forum at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism that racism should be criminalised.
"Sometimes I think road rage between black and white could lead to civil war in this country - if you look at what is happening in this country," he said.
"Are you not going to criminalise racism, even though there is the distinct threat that the country may explode? Unless we criminalise it, there will be danger to the unity of a nation."
Deputy Justice Minister John Jeffery said government was busy drawing up a hate crimes bill as part of its hate crime legislation, aimed at addressing crime committed "in whole or part because of the identity or the perceived identity of a victim".
He said the bill was being delayed due to the section on hate speech, which was complicated because the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech.
Initially, there was an opinion that this should not be included as a hate crime, "but then it was felt that, because of a slew of racial comments when people seemed to be able to think they can say, 'sorry I’m not racist, I’ve got black friends', and get away with it, but actually we should look at criminalising hate speech", he said.
SA needs bill 'to move forward as a nation'
There would be an attempt to balance the hate speech provision by making provision for exempting artistic expression and reporting in the public interest.
Jeffery said the bill would soon be published for public comment.
He said South Africa needed this bill "to be able to move forward as a nation".
He said many white South Africans felt that apartheid was abolished in 1994 "and there is a view of 'let’s forget about the past and move on and become an equal opportunity society', but because of the past that is not possible".
White South Africans should accept that the past still played a role in people’s current position in society, he said.
Law academic Joel Modiri, from the University of Pretoria, questioned whether such a bill would address structural inequalities.
"How did we get to a point where a majority required protection by the law?" he said.
He said racism could be seen as a psychological issue which required reconciliation, but it could also be about structural and power inequalities and addressing a conflict created by "the very arrival of whites in this country".
He said the issue was not about legislating to avoid a civil war. "If you look at the death rates in townships, clinics, there is [already] a civil war," he said.
"What kind of freedom is this that blacks need protection from whites?"