Members of the judiciary
Members of Parliament
The Deputy Head of the Delegation of the European Union
Esteemed anti-apartheid activist and former political prisoner, Mr Ahmed Kathrada
The Director-General of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development
Representatives of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Representatives from our Chapter 9 institutions, academia, the legal profession and civil society organisations
Representatives of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Anti-Racism Network South Africa
Representatives from the media, the labour sector, sport and the private sector
Senior officials from various government departments
Ladies and gentlemen
It is my pleasure to be able to address you today - at the start of Human Rights Month. As we celebrate Human Rights Day on the 21st we reflect on the tragic events that took place at Sharpeville on the 21st of March 1960.
Thirteen kilometres from here lies the township of Langa.
When we commemorate those who lost their lives at Sharpeville, we must also remember those of Langa. Official records show that two people lost their lives and 47 were wounded in Langa when police open fire on a crowd of anti-pass protestors on that fateful day.
In 1996 one of the Langa March participants, Mrs Nomakula Evelyn Zweni, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said she had seen more than 20 bodies at the old terminus in Langa. The bodies, she said, were the result of the shooting from the Saracens. Saracens are armoured personnel vehicles.
Mrs Zweni said: "On the way to the flats, to Langa, I saw those bodies. There were more than 20." Mrs Zweni broke down as she recalled Langa on the day: "Bullets were just flying all over … I hid next to a shop - I asked my God, I asked God - God if it is you who has allowed this, if it is you who want us to be killed.”
Sharpeville and Langa set in motion a range of history-changing events. At the end of March, a group of 30 000 people march from Langa to Cape Town in protest. A national state of emergency is declared and 11 503 people are detained. On the 8 April 1960 the government banned the ANC and the PAC.
The following year Government, very conveniently, enacts the Indemnity Act, which indemnified government, its officers and all other persons acting under its authority and empowered to suppress internal disorder from civil or criminal proceedings. The Act was made retrospective from 21 March 1960.
Sharpeville and Langa happened 56 years ago – in the history of a nation 56 years is not a long time. We have come a long way in a short space of time.
The choice we have today is whether to argue, like some people do, that the rainbow nation is a myth, or possibly never really existed at all.
Or we could choose to accept that our country is like a zebra – you cannot injure the black part without the white part suffering and vice versa.
The Mail and Guardian, discussing the Institute of Justice for Reconciliation’s 2015 Reconciliation Barometer and what is often called the “rainbow nation myth,” points to the fact that the report finds that 67% of South Africans have little to no trust in people of a different race group. More than 50% of respondents said they hardly interact with other races with the exception of in their workplaces or while shopping.
When one reads this, it is easy to want to become despondent and to ask how this is possible, given the continued efforts aimed at social cohesion and nation-building.
It is easy – particularly after the Penny Sparrows, Chris Harts and Velaphi Khumalos in our country – to become pessimistic and think that a non-racist, non-sexist society is a nice-to-have, an ideal to which we should strive, while sceptically harbouring doubts that it can be achieved in real life.
But I want to argue it from a different angle – namely that as much as we all abhor and were angered by the various racist rants of people earlier this year, it did succeed in achieving one thing – a renewed focus on eradicating racism and racial discrimination.
It shows us exactly why we need a National Action Plan.
It is not Government’s NAP, it is not only civil society’s NAP, it is our country’s NAP and the challenge lies therein as to how to ensure that all our people are given the opportunity to provide input in the process. Ultimately, ownership of the NAP should reside with the people.
You will see that there are action tables in the NAP. Action tables that are currently blank and have been left blank for a reason.
Because the action plans cannot be something that government decides on and then simply imposes on people. It cannot be a one-way exercise.
We need to hear from, for example, our religious leaders about what can be done to promote interfaith understanding and respect. The youth sector must tell us what can be done to practically address racism and racial discrimination in our schools and tertiary institutions of learning. For example, over this past weekend we saw the African National Congress in Gauteng and its alliance partners joining forces with AfriForum and Solidarity to denounce violence and disruption of classes recently witnessed at the University of Pretoria. All parties agreed that the situation had the potential to racially polarise the university and decided to rather consult each other and reach agreement.
The NAP, on the very last page thereof, proudly states that South Africa has been a guiding light in the world in conquering racism. Many people will ask how we can proclaim to be leaders in the world in conquering racism after what we saw on social media earlier this year.
But we are still world leaders in non-racialism. Let me explain -
Firstly, the Reconciliation Barometer that I mentioned earlier found that 64.6% of respondents saying that a single united nation is possible and 71% saying they desire a unified country. That in itself says a lot.
Secondly, many people were outraged by racist comments made by people of their own race. For example, many white people responded by saying that Penny Sparrow does not speak for them. As an article in the RDM stated “one Sparrow does not a racist nation make.”
When Velaphi Khumalo said he wanted to do to white people what Hitler did to the Jews, many Black people were outraged.
Onkgopotse JJ Tabane, writing in the Daily Maverick, said –
“You think the whole thing is a joke, ne? ‘Oh lets just do what Hitler did and we can sort out the likes of Sparrow’. I assume your hatred of white people is what you teach at home over breakfast? Or is your unbridled fascism not home-brewed? Is it reserved for your Facebook friends perhaps? It is clear to me that there is a need for the re-education of people like you in our society; people who believe that other races are being done a favour by being allowed to exist.”
What has emerged is that there many of our people who are prepared to stand up and say “racism, not in my name” and “racism, not in my country”. This is progress in itself and something that we can build on.
Thirdly, certain remarks recently made by presidential hopeful Donald Trump, also tells us something about South Africa.
Mr Trump was advocating for a harsh approach to counterterrorism. He is reported as referring, at a recent rally in South Carolina, to an anecdote from the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 and to US Army Gen. John Joseph Pershing. After the war, Pershing served as governor of the Muslim Moro Province, which experienced many insurgencies. Says Mr Trump:
"They were having terrorism problems, just like we do. And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood — you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem."
In our country, no public figure in their right mind would say something like that. Within minutes it would be all over social media and the public would simply not stand for it. There would be hate speech charges filed and the public outcry would be definite.
We simply would not tolerate it. And that says something about the society we live in.
My fourth point relates to the media.
Social media has, in some cases, become an outlet for untrammelled racism. The media and other means of public communication, such as the Internet and social media, play a crucial role in enabling free expression and the realization of equality. But while freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief are mutually dependent and reinforcing, freedom of expression must not impinge on the right to dignity.
The Press Council of South Africa’s Code of Ethics says that the media exist to serve society. Except where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported and it is in the public interest to do so, the media shall avoid discriminatory references to people’s race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth or other status, nor shall it refer to people’s status in a prejudicial or pejorative context.
By way of comparison, have a look at an article in the UK’s Daily Mail earlier this month. The article describes a horrific gang rape of a 16-year old girl in Manchester. The article discusses gang rape in Britain and refers to a Channel 4 documentary which made certain findings. And says the article –
“… a total of 92 young people were convicted of involvement in gang rape. Of those convicted, 66 were black or mixed race, 13 were white and the remainder were from other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Yet police insist it is not a race issue — but that most gang rapes take place in the most deprived boroughs, which have disproportionately high ethnic populations.”
So what the article implies is that people who live in poorer areas or who are Black are more likely to be gang-rapists.
In this regard, our media is ahead of the world.
I say this because I doubt that reporting of the kind I have just mentioned would be tolerated in South Africa. Here it would be handled responsibly. I would venture to say that a South African paper would rather focus on the victim, the severity of the crime, crime statistics in a particular area, the wellbeing and services offered to the victim, how to assist victims and what law enforcements agencies are doing to fight crime – but it would be cautious to perpetuate stereotypes and stigma.
The media is one of the main stakeholders that we have identified in as playing a crucial role in the NAP.
The media remains an integral component of civil society in South Africa and has a central role to play in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It has a responsibility to present a balanced, contextualised image of discriminated groups and events.
In addition to their central role in democratic society the media wields immense power in influencing and shaping people’s mind-sets and attitudes through their coverage.
As stated in the Durban Declaration, the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, particularly by the media, can make a positive contribution to the fight against racism and discrimination by drawing attention to the occurrence of such incidents while putting them into the right context, giving publicity to the sanctions incurred by the offenders and developing awareness-raising initiatives to sensitize the population to the adverse effects of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Ladies and gentlemen,
No person is born a racist. If one looks at little children playing, they all play together, they have no issue with difference – often they do not even speak the same language, but somehow they all understand each other. Madiba said it best when he said –
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
South Africans owe it to themselves to oppose racism for it bodes ill for our society, particularly in its quest for integration.
There is no magic solution to the problem. As the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation correctly notes, racial biases perpetually find expression in our speeches and practices in subtle ways.
Many a time people deny any intentional biases. This subtle form of racism remains complex thus dangerous since it is real.
We cannot afford to gloss over our differences as a multicultural society and the legacy of our history of segregation which is still in existence in our society. Our homes, schools, churches and workplaces continue to bear testimony to this.
The question of racism must invariably remain in the public limelight so that South Africans can engage with it in public forums and in the media. This is what the NAP seeks to achieve.
We must tirelessly work at fighting discrimination, with renewed and ongoing efforts to build a human rights culture. As Trevor Noah recently said “Freedom is hard work.”
While we address the challenges of racism and prejudice still evident in our country, we should strive to once again be the shining light to the world of how racism can be overcome.
I thank you.