It’s frightening. Because the more we shout: We’re not racist! The more evident it becomes that it really doesn’t matter whether we are or are not racist. Who will judge the judges? No-one’s going to look into our past and see whether we have lived as people free of racism and treated all people with respect. If any South African gets in the way of those on the warpath, it won’t matter whether they have the record of Mother Theresa herself, they will be rounded up and shot by the figurative firing squad anyway.
By now you will have read about what can only be described as a witch-hunt taking place in South Africa. Two prominent South Africans, Gareth Cliff (Idols Judge, TV and Radio personality, author and much more) and Christ Hart (Respected economist and author) have been removed from their positions for racism when all evidence indicates they are anything but. It’s difficult to work out what is going on and more importantly, it’s impossible to judge what the majority of people in South Africa are really thinking. Especially from outside the country.
So what do we know to be true?
Which is where the confusion is lies. Because the message that’s being broadcast out of South Africa right now is that it seems that anyone can publically call anyone else a racist whether they have the proof or not, whether they know the whole story or not, whether they are aware of the context or not.
It is true that Gareth Cliff is a bit of an outspoken shock jock who likes to cause a bit of stir. But of all the names he deserves to be called, he is not a racist. He is one of those South Africans who work tirelessly against racism. Nevertheless, he was fired after 10 seasons as a judge on South African Idols for not having sufficient empathy regarding black history.
Similarly, for as long as I can remember Chris Hart has popped onto TV screens commenting on economic issues in South Africa. He is by all accounts an exemplary man of intelligence, learning, dignity and gravitas who wants to make a difference in South Africa. He consistently exhibits noticeable passion about building a strong South African economy that will create employment opportunities and improve the lives of ordinary South Africans.
But a single ambiguous tweet has changed his life. He has been suspended from his job and been publicly labeled a racist because his tweet had racist overtones.
I can’t help feel devastated for them both. They both possess genuine integrity. Neither man has ever given any kind of indication of racism in the many public interviews and media appearances they’ve made. To achieve the success they have must have come with considerable hard work, sacrifice, study and elbow grease. None of this has been taken into account as they are so casually dismissed from their roles. 140 characters effectively cut short their current occupations.
Social media is like that. It has a life of its own and should be treated with caution, a lesson Cliff and Hart have learned the hard way.
The lesson if any is that one should not air one’s dirty laundry in public; one should think twice before putting one’s private thoughts and feelings in a social setting where it can be misconstrued as insensitive, inciting or offensive. But social media is precisely what businessman Sbusiso Leope used to tell the world that he and his friends had opened a case of Crimen Injuria against Chris Hart and Gareth Cliff (and others) at the Hillbrow Police Station when they posted a selfie of themselves on Instagram.
As Hart and Cliff’s lives, reputations, livelihoods, careers, and souls are destroyed by an assumption that when tested against past actions and words won’t hold, the grandson of the struggle hero Walter Sisulu is posing for a selfie on Instagram, adding the weight of that name to the list of people calling Hart and Cliff racists.
Oi Ve! A selfie of five (quite prominent) friends creating a political and social shit storm in a country that needs anything but. I would be surprised if Chris Hart even knew what a selfie was. And now he’s been attacked in one. Poor man.
Shaka Sisulu captioned the selfie: “About to lay charges against the Racists”, as he so casually posted the picture of himself and his four friends outside the police station, (ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa, Mzwanele ‘Jimmy’ Manyi, Siphile Buthelezi and Sbusiso Leope).
How does one make sense of what’s happening? For years, South Africa has been calling on South Africans to stand up and Lead SA. To stand up for what they believe in, to speak out against prejudice, to work for the betterment of all South Africans. That is precisely what Chris Hart and Gareth Cliff have been doing for the last 20 years (at least). And look where it got them.
It’s frightening. Because the more we shout: We’re not racist! The more evident it becomes that it really doesn’t matter whether we are or are not racist.
Who is going to check? Who will judge the judges? No-one’s going to look into our past and see whether we have treated people with the respect they deserve for the entirety of our careers. If any South African gets in the way of those on the warpath, it won’t matter whether they have the record of Mother Theresa herself, they will be rounded up and shot by the figurative firing squad anyway.
For what? For having an opinion about what could be done better in South Africa? For doing exactly what active, invested citizens have been asked to do? Or for having a twitter account with more followers than Shaka Sisulu? For taking better selfies than Sbusiso Leope?
It worries me because it feels like the beginning of something much more sinister. It feels like the Nazis all over again.
And when I ask my friends and family whether they feel a little more insecure in their white skins these days, they tell me how they just keep their heads down, mind their own business and get on with their lives without drawing any attention to themselves.
Which feels like the Jews all over again.