Let's Think

Do we really learn our lessons from racist incidents?

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Racism and its first cousin, prejudice, are a tragic part of South African society. Do we learn all the necessary lessons when manifestations of it hit us in the face?

Due to the explosion in social media platforms we have in recent months been hit in the face repeatedly by such manifestations. This is, on the whole, probably a good thing because it raises awareness of the problem.

There is, however, also some serious downsides to it. For one, with all the hype it causes, broader perspective, balanced consideration and important lessons more often than not get lost – as do the positives that are also present.

And when these exposures of racism do occur, they embolden hotheads from all sides to jump into the fray on social media, spewing their venom, hardening their positions and fostering further polarisation in society.   

Much of this is, at closer scrutiny, illustrated by some of the elements present in the furore that has erupted around the head of judge Mabel Jansen about the “chat” she had on a Facebook platform.

Lesson number one from the affair is, in the words of social media and media law expert Emma Sadleir: “If you wouldn’t put it on a billboard, don’t let it exist on a digital platform …”  

Judge Jansen claimed that she was involved in a private conversation in a non-public facility on her Facebook page with self-proclaimed activist Gillian Schutte. A year later Schutte published snippets from that conversation on the open net.

Whatever the legal rules pertaining to privacy might be, privacy in the social media sphere in practice is non-existent. “We have no controls over digital platforms,” Sadleir wrote.

Judge Jansen has since claimed that her statements were reflected out of context in the social media. It is difficult to imagine any context that could lend a perspective – other than a racist one – to her reported statements. It is, however, noteworthy that Schutte did not reveal a single word of her own contribution to the original conversation.

No fair trial

This brings one to the second important lesson from the unfolding Jansen affair: The principles of a fair trial and listening to both sides in a dispute or a contested case do not exist in the “court of public opinion” – not even for some members of the organised legal profession.

Lutendo Sigogo, president of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) in a statement called upon judge Jansen to resign from her position as a judge with immediate effect.

However, should she resign instead of going the route of taking special leave, which she did, it would rob her of the opportunity to put her side of the story in a disciplinary hearing.

Such a hearing would afford her the opportunity to place the full content of the Facebook conversation on the table under due legal process. Only then a proper judgement on the matter of “context” can be made.

Only after such a process will we know what the real issue under discussion was in the conversation between Jansen and Schutte. It seems that it might have been the vulnerable position of women in society – one at least as weighty as the issue of racism.

If it indeed, judged from the full context of the selectively leaked Facebook conversation, transpires that judge Jansen made her guilty of generalisations with regard to black people, it will be inexcusable and she will be unfit to serve in the position she occupies.

Based on the racial demographic composition of the South African population it will, statistically speaking, not be a surprise if indeed 90% of the accused which appeared before her were black.

That does not, however, mean that proportionally on this front the situation is better in the white community. On the contrary, from personal knowledge (not based on empirical facts) my impression is that it is at least as bad.

It would be a pity and a tragedy if we as a society allow the noise, created by the Jansen affair, to deflect the urgency of the attention that needs to be given to this issue. It destroys the lives of people in all the communities of our country on a daily basis.


At this point it is virtually impossible to identify any positives from the Jansen affair. However, with the other high profile social media war surrounding Rhodes Oxford scholar, Ntokozo Qwabe of #RhodesMustFall fame, it is a different story.

It is heartening to observe how many South Africans have chosen sides across racial lines in this instance. It illustrates that South Africans can take hands based on shared values, trumping entrenched prejudices.

But for me, the real hero to emerge from that saga is Ntokozo’s father, Felokwakhe Qwabe, who said “you can’t correct wrong things by also acting wrong. I am very shocked by the things I read about my son”.

He also not only said that he intended to discipline his son, but added “I also want him to tell me his side of the story”, which is much more than the learned lawyers of the BLA are willing to do in the case of judge Jansen.

Qwabe senior proved that when you stick to basic values it is possible to stay balanced despite hardships and injustices of the past.

He is a better man than I am. I still find it difficult to forgive those right wing radicals who in the early 1990s assaulted my son in his high school boarding house because his dad was a “k…. boetie”.

Also read: The k-word and the intolerance underlying it

by Piet Coetzer

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