United in our diversity (until we’re not)
United in our diversity. That is South Africa for you. But are we really? Does the colour of our skin, the language we speak and where we live really matter?
These thoughts flooded my mind on Thursday night when I watched the play Isithunzi, which is based on a despicable incident in 2007 in the Free State in which four university students, dubbed the Reitz Four, humiliated cleaning staff by, among other things, having them drink a mixture that apparently included urine. The incident was filmed and went viral in 2008.
A national outcry followed the disturbing video and caused substantial racial tension.
The students pleaded guilty and were handed suspended sentences. They apologised for their deeds, which the humiliated cleaners accepted. A cleansing ceremony was held in 2011, during which the Reitz Four expressed their “deepest regret”. After that, South Africans went back to their lives, united in diversity. The cleaners and their ordeal were forgotten.
Snippets of the video were included in the play, and made me wonder if we’d missed an opportunity back then to, as a country, deal with the ugliness of racism.
Since then, racism has too often reared its ugly head, each time causing an uproar.
These acts of discrimination tell us that we are still far from ridding society of racism.
We are quite clearly still divided along racial lines – as evidenced recently in Coligny, North West, where violence overwhelmed the area after a black boy was allegedly killed by white farmers for stealing sunflowers.
People such as Penny Sparrow, Chris Hart, Vicky Momberg, Ntokozo Qwabe, Matthew Theunissen, Judge Mabel Jansen and many more remind us every day that racists don’t only live in small towns – they are everywhere, including on social-media platforms, where scores – anonymously – spend their time.
When an incident hits the headlines, there is an uproar – people are angry; some are defensive; there is a national debate. But only for a while. Once the dust has settled, we all go back to our lives and go back to believing we are united in our diversity.
As a country, we could have harnessed the Reitz incident for good and used it as a poster to rally behind and say such acts of racism would not happen in our name. However, would that have helped?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that another revolting incident of racial hatred and intolerance will soon bring us to our feet again.
And, a little while later, we’ll go back to being “united in our diversity”.
Racism has too often reared its ugly head, each time causing an uproar