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When did we lose our rainbow manners?

By Julie Reid

My mother was a remarkably intelligent, though unashamedly outspoken and un-politically correct woman. One of the things which irritated her most about the public rhetoric of the post-1994 “halo period” was the politically-correct tone of discussions; in the media, between politicians, among public figures and so on. Remember those days? When we were all enamoured by our new Constitution, proud of our new “Rainbow Nation” and would not have dared utter racial slurs, angry rants or rude insults of any kind, particularly not within the public sphere. The polite and politically correct veneer of public discourse of that time frustrated my mother endlessly, and this was a woman whose own husband and brother had been imprisoned during apartheid for taking a stand against the government.

It’s not that my mother was not in favour of the new South Africa. She was. She had certainly sacrificed enough for it. But she would have liked to see a little more honesty within public debate, with regard to how all the political stakeholders really felt about each other. (Thankfully, I think she was largely alone in this). But I am not sure if even my mother would have approved of the current tone that seems to plague South African debates now. She was irritated by political correctness, but she loathed rudeness. In a way, it seems that we have somewhere, somehow jumped from one extreme to the other. 2010 has been the year when suddenly it has become widely acceptable to adopt a level of indecency on the public platform.

My question is: is this widespread lack of decency (and in some cases, just a lack of good manners) indicative of a worrying downward trend in the collective ethical psyche of South African public voices, or are we simply purging ourselves of 15 years of strenuously maintained politically correct modes of communication? More importantly, if we are just taking a breather from being polite, are we going to pick that ball up again at some point, or are we simply going to decide not to make the effort to be nice, and continue on our current trajectory?

As examples of how we lost our “rainbow manners”, I think of Julius Malema’s singing of the “Kill the Boer” song earlier this year. No matter how you look at it, he must have known it was going to offend someone, yet he did it anyway. Why? This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Gareth Cliff’s letter to the government on October 12 calls Blade Nzimande “ugly” and refers to Jacob Zuma’s “bastard children”. Even though I agree with some of Cliff’s points, the tone of the letter was downright mean (which, I suppose, is true to Cliff’s persona). Obviously, the letter garnered some response and Blade Nzimande’s chief of staff, Nqaba Nqandela, said: “Please note that Minister Nzimande is not going to dignify these rants of a racist with a response.” Well, OK, I might be missing something here, but even though the letter was scathing, I did not see any racism in Cliff’s letter.

Which also reminds me that we have become terribly quick to accuse one another of racism these days. Again, Malema springs to mind when he accused journalist Jonah Fisher of having a “white tendency”, also calling him a “bastard” and a “bloody agent” before throwing him out of a press conference. After the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche, which all evidence would suggest was a purely criminal act, the media began punting notions of a looming “race war”, and had some wondering if the supposed civil war that had been averted at Codesa, had simply been postponed until now. In this atmosphere of racial tension, there was the debacle of the “Don’t touch me on my studio” interview when Andre Visagie and Lebohang Pheko had a rather ugly on-camera spat.

More seriously, I do not want to believe that the loss of our “rainbow manners” indicates a general loss of our “rainbow ideals”. The most current, yet not the only, example of this would be the ANCs recent systematic attempts at limiting media freedom in South Africa, with the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and Protection of Information Bill being only part of their arsenal in their battle with the free press. Here I would like to refer supporters of the idea of the Media Appeals Tribunal to a little piece of reading: Chapter 2, section 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa: point 1 reads “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes (a) freedom of the press and other media … ”

We know that other African governments are looking south for justifications of their own, sometimes dubious, actions. In Zambia, where the struggle for media freedom and a self-regulated press continues, the minister of information and broadcasting services, Ronnie Shikapwasha reportedly said South Africa’s taking the issue of media self-regulation to Parliament is indicative that self-regulation would fail in Zambia, similar to how it is failing in South Africa.

Except that many of us who believe in a free press, do not feel that self-regulation is failing in South Africa at all. The symptomatic consequences of the ANCs rhetoric against the media are, however, having international consequences on the continent.

I raise this point to show that we must not think that what we do here at home, or how we choose to behave toward one another, goes unnoticed by our African neighbours. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to treat each other with dignity and decency, not only in terms of safe-guarding our now apparently fragile democracy, but also, because the rest of Africa is watching and it’s up to us to set an example.

Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the department of communication science at Unisa. She writes about the state of media freedom in South Africa on her blog at

  • Kenda

    Bastard may refer to:

    * A child whose birth lacks legal legitimacy—that is, one born to a woman and a man who are not legally married to one another

    I have no issue with how it was used.

  • Dave Harris

    “Except that many of us who believe in a free press, do not feel that self-regulation is failing in South Africa at all. ”
    Self-regulation cannot work in a country where the media, a relic of the apartheid propaganda machine, is largely a monopoly controlled by a single conglomerate serving the interests of a privileged minority. Ownership interests are obfuscated to hide this fact.

    First we need diversity in the media ownership, then only can we rely on the natural market forces to self-regulate.

  • Benzol

    @ Dave H: “First we need diversity in the media ownership,…”

    Did “New Age” not try to establish just that?? what happened there?

  • Robin Grant

    @Harris – A quick scan of the shareholders of our current media conglomerates quickly verifies that you are once again spouting rubbish.

  • Paul S

    We’re on track to continue with the ‘current trajectory’ as the writer puts it, and without any shadow of a doubt. What we are seeing now that the papered-over cracks are reopening is the true level of hate, fear and loathing that ordinary SA’s have for each other. This is the real deal, not the superficial good neighbourliness that prevails in a few upper middle class areas and which some like to think reflects reality. It’s the raw truth of the growing divide between white boer or settler and his desperate and long-hungry poor black counterpart and which is yet to explode. I wish I could believe otherwise, but this is it.

  • Bill Rogers

    To the best of my knowledge the broadcast and print media are effectively controlled by the “black majority”. Perhaps Dave Harris needs to own up to blatant disregard for the truth in the interests of propaganda. It is not only white people who are opposed to the ANC government’s disregard of democratic principles, just as not all blacks support the ANC. It is only the ANC which still attempts to polarise the South African population with this racist stereotyping.

  • MLH

    Julie: ‘We have a moral and ethical responsibility to treat each other with dignity and decency’ not because others are watching, but because that’s how civilised people behave.
    I’m sure your mother would have been equally frustrated by the utter rudeness that some show. Although I’m no pal of GC, I do believe, quite frankly, that his outspokeness did not equate with JM’s shocking behaviour. There is a tendency to scream ‘racism’ for effect, before even digesting what has been said.

  • Julie Reid

    No sooner did I write this article, when Julius Malema thought it in good form to call Helen Zille a ‘cockroach’ at a public rally. I would be ok with logical and robust intellectually well-constructed criticism of Zille and her actions. But calling her a ‘cockroach’ displays nothing but bad manners. Its just rude. You’re a grown adult man, Julius, you should behave like one.

  • Stix

    The racist card always sticks its head out when the individual playing the card is losing his/her battle. When you have no leg to stand on, play the racist card. Because some people are such massive morons that they can’t make a smart argument then it’s easy to shout “racist”!

  • A.J. Venter

    Come now, there is nothing new about this.

    Back in the 90’s it’s true that the top politicians of the day F.W. De Klerk and Nelson Mandela were able to be political opponents (both taking turns at being ruler and opposition) with a very intelligent and deep tone in their political discussion – but they were exceptional even then.

    Have you forgotten that we had the SAME problem when the man singing “Kill the farmer Kill the boer” was Peter Mokaba ?
    Have you forgotten how close we did come to a civil war when the IFP refused to participate in the elections, changing their minds with literally mere days to spare ?
    Have you forgotten the “necklace” ?

    We were lucky to have two leaders of the Calibre of De Klerk and Mandela – we probably won’t see such leadership ever again. There are many worrying trends in politics today, but rudeness and offensive behavior is not new and as no less rampant in the 90’s, it’s just that we no longer have such true statesmen to balance it out.

    That is much more worrying.