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Racism is not free speech. It is an offence – Helen Zille

Helen ZilleIn October, swimming coach Tim Osrin stopped his car in Kenilworth, leaped out and approached a black woman who was walking down the street. He had never before met Cynthia Joni, a 44 year-old domestic worker from Khayelitsha who was on her way to work. Without provocation, and without saying a word to her, he began to assault her violently, in broad daylight. His explanation? He mistook her for a prostitute. Osrin, it turns out, is also accused of a similar assault on a prostitute in Kenilworth in January this year.

Last week, a black petrol pump attendant in Witbank asked two white bikers who were smoking next to a petrol pump, to put out their cigarettes. They responded by phoning their friends, eight of whom quickly arrived on the scene. They then followed the attendant into the forecourt shop where he was violently assaulted while being called a host of offensive racial slurs. All of this was caught on camera.

In September, a group of white spectators at the Newlands rugby test match between the Springboks and Australia began loudly shouting the “k” word every time a black player touched the ball. When some of the white people around them objected, they were also verbally abused for the remainder of the game.

In March, two black women left a bar in Richards Bay to fetch a friend. When they returned, they were blocked from entering by a group of white men who told them it was “not a bar for blacks”. When they protested, a scuffle ensued and all three of them were assaulted by the men.

In November, Malawian national, Muhammed Makungwa, was late for his work as a gardener and was running down a road in Rondebosch when he was almost run over by a BMW. The white driver jumped out with a sjambok in his hand and proceeded to assault him repeatedly. The assailant, military dentist Jan van Tonder, later claimed he thought Makungwa had broken into his car.

On Thursday, a homeless black man was speaking to the drivers at the Gautrain bus station in Rosebank, Johannesburg, when a white passenger told him to go back to Zimbabwe, along with a string of other insults. When the homeless man responded, the white man attacked him, assaulting and choking him, all the while screaming at him about “white power”. The attacker then reportedly calmly boarded the bus and joked with the passengers about the incident.

In October, 52 year-old cleaner, Delia Adonis, saw five white young men assault a man as he left a Cape Town nightclub. She helped the man by alerting the police. A short while later she was brutally attacked by the same five thugs in the parking area. Her 17 year-old son could not stop this assault as she was knocked to the ground and then repeatedly kicked all over her body. Her attackers called her a number of vile racist names throughout the assault.

I could go on listing incidents like these for ages. Like the drunk white UCT student who urinated on a black man’s head from a nightclub balcony. Like the drunk white reveller who called a black man at a Green Point ATM the “k” word (and got beaten up as a result). Like the black motorist in Randburg who was attacked with an axe by a white motorist, only to be reportedly ignored by the paramedics on the scene. Like the all too regular reports of racism on our campuses, in our high schools, in our sports clubs, on our roads.

This is a deeply disturbing trend, and one which we cannot ignore.

At this point people will point out that white people are the victims of assault too. That black people can also cross the race line. That racism is not the sole domain of one group of people. And that far more black people are killed and assaulted by other black people than by whites.  They would be right.  I have also made these points before.  And I will always say:  We must, and we do – condemn all crimes and violence.

But right now I want to speak about white-on-black racism on its own, without the obligatory comparison or “contextualisation”. Without the “whataboutery” that invariably accompanies this kind of discussion, although it is valid to ask tough questions to challenge double standards and hypocrisy.

But today I am focusing only on white racists because they are all too often associated with the DA.  I want to make one thing quite clear:  Our party has no place for people like these.  We are disgusted by them.  While our constitution guarantees them the right to free speech, even when they are vile and offensive, they do not have a right to associate, or be associated with, the DA.  We do not want them.  Full stop.  They are free to associate with each other (within the law)   —  but not with us.

Everyone knows that the people who perpetrate or condone racist attacks are a tiny minority. Some of them will probably never come to terms with the march of progress, and the increasing preference of South Africans to associate along the lines of values and not race.

Fortunately, incorrigible racists are a small and dwindling group. As we move into our third decade of a free and democratic South Africa, their voices will likely become fewer and fainter. So why are we then seeing the opposite? Why has this little pocket of racial haters become so brazen of late?

The answer is simply: because they can. Through sheer complacency, we’ve given them more and more leeway to push the boundaries of what they can get away with.

Every one of us has a duty to speak up in our daily interactions when we encounter racist attitudes.  Unless we do, we allow the level of acceptable behaviour to sink lower, little by little.  We accept that people have a constitutional right to be offensive.  But we have a duty, in defence of our constitutional values, to confront them non-violently.

The most nauseating experience of all is those racist whites who assume that everyone else of a similar colour is okay with an offensive joke or a distasteful comment.  If we turn our backs without confronting them, we are complicit in giving them a platform to carry on doing so.

We must show the courage to challenge any social reinforcement for racist behaviour, because small acts of intolerance have the potential to manifest in more despicable acts of aggression and degradation as we see all too often.

But there’s also another reason for this sudden surge in racist incidents: the emergence of a new, self-appointed duo of right wing “leaders”, filling the void left by the implosion of the far-right and the fizzling-out of the near-right.

Gone are the khaki-clad, gun-toting, horse-riding para-militaries of old. They have now been replaced by one pop star and one self-proclaimed intellectual, in Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt.  I often wonder what happened in Steve Hofmeyr’s life to turn him into the man he has become.  It was not always so. And few people know that Dan Roodt went into self imposed exile rather than serve in the SA Defence Force during apartheid.  What happened?

Both these men are outspokenly offensive on issues of race, Hofmeyr through his concerts and Roodt through his website and twitter. Their strategy is to be as racially provocative as possible, under the guise of language and cultural freedom.  Nothing particularly unique about that approach.  But they then cry foul when people respond.  Social media is a tough space and they should stay off the playground if they can’t take the punches they dish out.

Cloaked in flowery prose and intellectual bluster, their racism has emboldened some of their followers. I doubt it is a coincidence that the increase in racist incidents across the country has run parallel to the increase in their public profiles.

We’ve allowed this to happen, and this has created a dilemma for our democracy.  We defend our human rights culture.  This includes the right of free speech.  It does NOT include the right NOT to be offended.  We wouldn’t need to defend free speech, if everyone always said nice things about each other.

By now most people would have heard of Hofmeyr’s infamous tweet: “Sorry to offend, but in my books blacks were the architects of apartheid. Go figure.” This made the headlines when satire puppet, Chester Missing, waged a social media campaign against Hofmeyr, targeting the sponsors of a concert where he was performing.

So, what did Steve expect?  The caricature of a white racist is always the most precious gift for satirists.

Having used his right to free speech to be as offensive as possible, Hofmeyr, with the legal assistance of his friend, Roodt, tried to use the courts to defend himself from a ventriloquist’s puppet.  (You can’t invent this stuff).  Most South Africans had never heard of Chester Missing before this incident.  After he won a court case, and became the poster-pop for anti-racists, he became a national hero.

But maybe the laugh’s on us.  Chester knows there is nothing like a running battle with racists to send your career into orbit.  Maybe he did a deal with Steve and Dan to share the royalties in perpetuity.  Steve and Dan would know that’s what you do when your career needs a booster rocket.

The magistrate concluded that people who choose to be racist, cannot be protected from being ostracised. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

And there should be consequences. When the likes of Hofmeyr and Roodt claim to speak on behalf of Afrikaners in their daily diatribes, regular Afrikaners must stand up and say “No, you don’t speak for me”.

In the 2014 National and Provincial Elections, Roodt dipped his toe in the waters of South African politics by registering a political party, the far-right Front Nasionaal. He went into the elections bouyed by the loud noises coming from his online supporters. This turned out to be a classic case of “leë blikke maak die meeste geraas” (empty cans produce the most noise), as his party won a paltry 5,000 votes nationally.

I’m always relieved that this tiny group has an alternative.  We do not want them in the DA.

We want to bring South Africans together on the basis of a shared value set, rather than race.  That is what our constitution envisages.

And for those who cannot find it within themselves to do this, there is always Roodt’s little party.

Article by Helen Zille.

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