Online reader comments on South African news sites often elicit a response similar to one you experience at an accident scene. You know you shouldn’t look – or in this case read – but you cannot help yourself even though you know your stomach will churn at because of blatant racist comments. Ditto comments on social media platforms such as the Facebook pages of Sunette Bridges and Boere Krisis Aksie, writes Stephanie Nieuwoudt.
In January Bridges was hauled in front of the Equality Court by the South African Human Rights Commission on charges that she violated the Equality Act.
Even Zelda La Grange, Madiba’s former personal assistant, and highly respected journalist Max du Preez have become targets of social media haters. La Grange after she fired off a volley of tweets in January – one that read that she is tired of Zuma “targeting white people”. This came shortly after Max du Preez, veteran journalist and columnist for Independent Media, was called “racist and bigoted” in a statement by the Presidency. The statement was in reaction to a column by Du Preez in which he described Zuma as a “wrecking ball”. What followed is explained by Du Preez in this article.
Some social media users used derogatory language against Du Preez calling him, yes, racist. Not so, said others, pointing out that he has throughout the years been consistent in calling out unjust practices – be they committed by the leaders of the Nationalist Party or the ANC.
Looking at online comments, can one conclude that South Africans are indeed racist?
‘We have to distinguish between justified criticism like exerting your right as a citizen by commenting about cadre deployment in light of the Eskom crisis and saying something that links ability with skin colour,” says Dr Fanie du Toit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR).
“South Africans need to take attitudes and structures into consideration before they make a judgement. If people say they struggle to trust Zuma, it does not necessarily mean they are racist. Also, Zuma often speaks to his constituents in Zulu. And when his words are translated, some of the meaning behind the words can get lost if the context and cultural background is not taken into consideration.
“I do not believe that Zuma has an ‘anti-white’ agenda. But as the president of this country, he needs to include all people when he speaks in public.”
The IJR’s South African Reconciliation Barometer – a survey that tracks reconciliation – shows that there is a 50% greater chance of race groups interacting in the workplace than 10 years ago.
“However, we are still a race-driven country where transformation has not sufficiently happened in all spheres,” says Du Toit. “The Barometer also shows that only 53% of whites believe that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Nonetheless I believe South Africans are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately those for whom racism is a way of living are becoming more vocal on social media. When people feel they are alienated by the utterances of the leaders, it could lead to conservative, racist groups becoming even more vocal.”
According to Isaac Mangena, spokesperson for the South African Human Rights Commission, this institution received over 500 reports of racism – of which a large part were on social media – in 2014.
“It is difficult to say if the online comments reflect a general increase in racism. Social media offers those who would anyway make derogatory comments when among friends a public platform,” he says.
The SAHRC receives complaints from both sides of the race divide. In February 2013 it had to act on complaints received following Zama Khumalo’s Facebook invitation to a braai to celebrate the drowning of 42 white children in the Westdene bus tragedy of 1985.
Aubrey Matshiqi, research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, says he is surprised that South Africans find racist flare-ups strange.
“Although we all share the same fears, desires and aspirations, we do not know each other because we do not acknowledge the humanness of others. We need some tough conversations where we are hard on racism, but soft on each other. There is still a gap between reality and the aspirations of reconciliation.”
Political analyst, Dr Christi van der Westhuizen, postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (University of Cape Town), says that social media generally does not allow for deep reflection. And comments are often a knee-jerk reaction.
“We need to be more careful and contemplate the implications of what we post online. We need a different kind of ethic for social media,” she says. “I do believe most South Africans have faith in this country. But there is an extremely vocal, albeit minority, group, of right wingers who think they can reinforce their position through comments on social media”
Politicians also have a lot to answer for in the race divide.
“Some black politicians, who are quick to play the race card, often lack the moral authority to do so. But they force the issues because it is opportune for them,” says Matshiqi.
“South Africans also tend to veer between hysterical optimism and hysterical pessimism. When AWB leader Eugene Terreblanche was killed in 2010, commentary suggested the country was on the verge of a civil war. A few months later, during the Soccer World Cup, many believed it was a Nirvana of social harmony,” he adds.
Matshiqi says that many racist remarks made on news websites under pseudonyms will disappear if contributors who do not want their friends to see what they write, are forced to use their own names.
“Insistence on a name would certainly limit some of the online rubbish,” he says.
Follow Stephanie Nieuwoudt on Twitter @StephanieWords
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