How not to impair the dignity of fellow citizens

We have somehow lost that moral high ground that Madiba thought he left us with, whether this be Zuma, Jooste, Gupta, the ANC, the DA the list continues, says the writer. File photo: INLSA

Non-racialism is still under excruciating pressure in South Africa.  Close to home, I noticed this back in 2016 when two incidents happened only a few weeks – and a few kilometers – apart.

On July 12th 2016, in Belfast, Mpumalanga province… Pierre Etienne de Necker was bludgeoned to death with bottles and pipes – by 12 black men. One of the murderers crassly took a photo of the dying fellow with his cellphone and sent it to his sister to brag of what he and 11 others had done. His sister posted it on Facebook.  Someone who knew De Necker saw it on the net, recognized him, and phoned his family to notify them. Almost a million adults-over-18 saw that photo within the next few months, all over the world.

They say he had stolen a vehicle.  They say that vigilantes are more effective than the police. They say that the police delayed in responding and that the ambulance delayed in rushing him to the hospital. 

Then on August 27th 2016, two white men forced a black man into a coffin. Victor Mlotshwa says he was afraid that they would bury him alive. He was so scared that he didn’t even report it until November 7th 2016. He didn’t think the police would believe him! Until the video emerged on YouTube. In a 20-second video, a man speaking in Afrikaans threatens to burn him alive while they throw petrol on him. A phone was used to brag about the scene of a crime.

It happened on a farm near Middleberg, Mpumalanga province.  Mlotshwa was forced into a coffin, near an open grave. Two against one – on their home turf. One of the perpetrators had a gun. They say he was trespassing. He says that he was following a footpath.

The two perpetrators were eventually arrested and convicted for attempted murder and the trial was nothing less than a media spectacle.

Then in early 2017, there were two more incidents in the news. In Mbombela, there was a huge row over the way four white golfers, older men, assaulted one 19-year black golfer on the course. They beat him up and made it clear that he was unwelcome, although he was a professional golfer. Again there was something of a delayed response to this incident. The local media did report this story, including coverage of the protests and demonstrations that it provoked.  But it took a few months before the political back-lash from this incident put pressure on Mbombela Local Municipality to cancel its lease to the Nelspruit Golf Club (NGC).

Also in March 2017, there was an ugly event in a Spur restaurant. Part of this altercation (not all) was also captured on a cell-phone and went viral.  It was a verbal exchange between two parents, a white man and a black woman. It has raised questions about double-standards. 

Most restaurants have mainly black staff, and mainly white managers, although these stereotypes are fading. This incident cost Spur big-time, because whites responded with a boycott that caused some of its franchises a huge loss of income. Mainly in settings where white farmers are its main customers.

In the past year, infamous names come to mind on both sides.

Estate agent Penny Sparrow was fined R150 000 by the Umzinto Equality Court for her racist rant on a Facebook post. She had described black beachgoers as “monkeys”.

Then former Idols SA judge Gareth Cliff found himself in hot water after he tweeted about this uproar. A deluge of responses labelled him a racist and demanded his removal as an Idols judge.

Estate agent Vicki Momberg went on a racist rant shortly after being a victim of a smash-and-grab in Johannesburg in 2016. She loosely hurled the k-word 48 times at police officers and 10111 operators who had tried to assist following her ordeal. Her tirade was caught on camera and the video soon went viral.  This has landed her in jail – she was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by the Randburg Magistrate’s Court.

In early 2018, Mark Lamberti resigned from both his board positions – on Business Leadership South Africa and Eskom. The North Gauteng High court found that he had impaired the dignity of Adila Chowan, a former employee at Associated Motor Holdings, an Imperial Holdings subsidiary. This followed him referring to Chowan as a “female, employment equity candidate”, a remark that Lamberti later apologised for.

On the other side of the racial divide there are also indiscretions…

Judge Nkola Motata was recorded swearing at onlookers after he crashed his Jaguar into a wall. He used the word “boer” to refer to Richard Baird‚ a key state witness who captured the cell phone footage and recordings of Motata angrily admonishing him and two female Metro police officers. A JSC tribunal concluded that his racist comments – and the dishonest way he conducted his trial – could justify his removal as a judge.

SANDF Major Mohlala reacted to a photo on social media of a badly beaten 80-year-old white man saying that the attackers “should actually have poked out his eyes and tongue so that the last people he would ever see, were the killers and he could go to his grave with the nightmare.” He went on: “Apartheid is in him. All of these old white people think we are stupid when they say they were opposed to apartheid. We will not forget what they have done. Now it is the white people’s turn.”

According to the SAHRC: “There is no justification for such hateful commentary by any South African. Given the position held by Major Mohlala in the SANDF, these remarks are simply unacceptable.”

In another case, the SAHRC was recently granted an order that interdicts and restrains Edward Zuma from “publishing, propagating, advocating or communicating hate speech”, following statements he made in 2017 – about Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom. The order forms part of a settlement reached between the oldest son of former president Jacob Zuma and the SAHRC at the Durban Equality Court.

And now, in mid-2018, editor Ferial Haffajee is suing columnist Eric Miyeni for describing her as a “black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks”. According to journalist Max du Preez, this was definitely hate-speech. Especially the part of her working for white masters.

What ever happened to the Rainbow Nation? It seems that we are regressing from Technicolor back to the age of black and white. This does not bode well for the Non-racialism project. Especially when politicians like Julius Malema and Blade Nzimande seem to get away with it. This year, Malema said that he was going to remove Mayor Trollip “because he is white”.  Last year, Nzimande publicly called Michael Sun, a member of the Joburg Mayoral Committee, a “fong kong” who was knowledgeable in “karate”.  How and why do politicians get away with this kind of hate-speech?

With elections less than a year away, it would be good for politicians to not be exempt from impairing the dignity of fellow citizens.

This week Ashwen Willemse walked off the set of a Super Sports show, objecting to his being patronized and treated as a “quota” by his co-panelists Mallet and Botha.  The latest is that all three of them have been suspended for their inability to sort out their differences amicably.

This litany of episodes is instructive.  Inflammatory language like “monkeys, kaffirs, boers, fong kong, snakes” should be avoided – always. Calling someone an equity employment candidate or even treating them as “quota” can provoke conflict.  If you think that affirmative action is not helping – and maybe even hindering – then play the ball – not the man!

On the whole, although media coverage has never been impartial or balanced (neither historically nor in the present), the Judiciary does seem to be refereeing the episodes fairly.  As in the political arena, the Judiciary and Section 9 institutions like the SAHRC are proving to be our ethical and equitable anchor.  It is important that court decisions serve as deterrents, which has been our purpose in cataloguing all these episodes.

At the time of the Treason Trials, Nelson Mandela stated bravely and wisely: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity