Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

Gareth Cliff: Who do you think you are?

The funeral of slain soccer star Senzo Meyiwa was barely over when polemic radio jockey Gareth Cliff took to the Twitterverse to ask who was paying for the funeral.

Another South African is lowered into the ground after an act of violence, another family mourns, and another story of our failed collective freedom is written into the pages of history; but Cliff interrupts this moment of silence to ask an important question.

How dare he!

Perhaps Cliff should have waited before asking his questions. Perhaps he should just have kept quiet, because the sanctity of this funeral – which was already marred by the controversy of real life, and obscured by the truth behind the public persona – was to be disrupted even further by an unrelenting, racially-motivated assault on Cliff for asking a tough question.

How dare this white man ask questions?

The real concerns about Cliff’s potential insensitivity are overshadowed by the name-calling, online abuse and racial vitriol. People who were rightly challenging Cliff about the timing of his comments (although even this argument is up for debate) were joined by mobs seeking a kind of misguided racial “justice”. According to the online abusers, Cliff was a disrespectful “white bustard [sic]”; a man who disrespects black voices.

Of course, this online abuse is congruent with that faced by people who speak out against the often violently racist white far-right. After writing about the problematic side of white masculinity and challenging the ideology of whiteness I received death threats, phone calls to my employers, and seemingly relentless online harassment from white racists. I know too many writers and activists who live the terrifying reality of online abuse; theirs is a story of endless police reports and dockets that lead nowhere, anonymous avatars that threaten rape and murder, and a pervasive fear that clicking “send” online will result in even worse.

Online abuse doesn’t serve any purpose other than to silence our voices, and impede our right to speak freely, without fear. In the age of internet bedlam and outrage, the threats and harassment serve as an unacceptable part of the job description for writers, journalists and academics who write about controversial subjects. It is unacceptable for people to turn to racial vitriol because Cliff asks questions and voices opinions which make people uncomfortable.

In fact, we should be worried that so many people felt uncomfortable about this kind of question. Free societies cannot coexist with sacred cows.

Sure, Cliff is a seasoned public personality. And perhaps the abuse and harassment won’t faze him, but I can’t get over the manner in which a legitimate opinion became the source of racially-motivated attacks.

People can’t be outraged when Steve Hofmeyr says ridiculous things, and then speak a similar kind of language a few moments later. We can’t be selectively outraged by the racist white far-right, and simply stand back when some black people on social media engage in exactly the same kind of abuse to silence people. When someone says: Gareth, you’re disrespecting black people by asking this question, they’re actually suggesting white people like Cliff don’t have a right to ask these questions.

Again, free societies can’t coexist with sacred cows.

There are real racists who threaten transformation – and even basic attempts at cohesion – in South Africa. Cliff’s question doesn’t amount to any kind of assault on this transformation. But the people who use racially-motivated online harassment as a means to silence Cliff do threaten transformation and cohesion. I wish the anger directed at Cliff was merely the act of a few trolls. Unfortunately, it’s just another example of illegitimate harassment founded on prejudice.

Moreover, it smacks of an attempt to shut down online debate and free speech.

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