2016 going on 1987
Anew year is never supposed to begin this way. Those who are still on holiday are meant to continue enjoying the last of their lazy days, while those who are back at work are meant to ease back into normal life.
The year 2016 did not allow South Africa that privilege. On Monday, we were thrust into a maelstrom, thanks to some backward-thinking racists who seemed unaware that a heatwave, a bottle of alcohol and a smartphone are a lethal combination. The racist outbursts by Penny Sparrow, Justin van Vuuren and Chris Hart were troubling in that they showed the pervasiveness of beliefs that should have been interred with Andries Treurnicht.
Even more disconcerting was that these professional people were prepared to share these views with the whole world.
However, there were positives to be taken from this toxic week. Never before have citizens galvanised so strongly around the issue of racism. Be it in newspapers, on radio, social media and other platforms, the backlash against the racist comments was immense.
Van Vuuren’s gym company was dumped by major corporates. Sparrow, who is now a household name, went into hiding, and she will find reinventing herself hard. The previously respected Hart was not only suspended by his employer, but embarrassingly had his poor academic qualifications laid bare before the public. The trio, along with Gauteng government worker Velaphi Ndlovu, will now face the might of the law as charges have been laid with the police and chapter 9 institutions.
A message has been sent that there will be consequences for those who verbalise and practise prejudice.
It is important to maintain this momentum. Having said that, this newspaper would like to caution against this vigilance turning into vigilantism. In this the age of social-media activism, it is very easy to stage effective protests without calling people to the streets. And in emotive situations where campaigners have smelt blood, this powerful medium can be abused. Social media has proved itself an invaluable weapon in deepening democracy and fighting the ills that beset our society, including racism. We should be careful not to allow this freedom-enhancing tool to become a weapon to shut down free spaces.