We are constantly being reminded that because of instant digital connectivity, we live in a global village. Along with another over-worked modern metaphor — that it takes a village to raise a child — this is a phrase generally used with approval or, at worst, resignation.
The less salutary aspects of village life are rarely articulated. For villages are not innately benign.
Often they are narrow-minded, smug, incestuous and intolerant of difference. In medieval times they were often the locus of impulsive, violent passions that would erode reason and sweep away all restraint. Think heretic hunting and witch burning.
The South African social media village is no different, to judge by the sound and fury of the past few weeks. Hatred, bitterness and stupidity have been the leitmotifs, with violence the apparently preferred solution.
It started with the casual racism of the now infamous Penny Sparrow, who referred to black South Africans as “monkeys”. It then degenerated further, with white South Africans in turn excoriated to a man, as irretrievable racists who should be dispossessed and sent packing back to Europe.
The instinctual bigotry of the parochial and the racist has been running unchecked online for weeks now. It’s an astonishing and stomach-heaving spectacle of tit-for-tat insults and threats.
There have been attempts at fire fighting. Independent Media launched a campaign against racism in its publications. President Jacob Zuma, as one would expect when the country is choking on its own bile, has spoken out on the issue.
However, as one would also expect from such a master of equivocation, his condemnation is guarded and one-sided. Obviously referring only to whites, Zuma said that a small minority still harboured racist views, evidenced by their desire for separate amenities and their idolisation of apartheid-era leaders.
The problem is, contrary to the tenets of faith of the local Twitterati, it is not only whites that are racist. Indeed the most egregiously racist and threatening comments on social media that I have seen, have come from black people.
This has been hate speech of the kind that preceded genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. Here it revolves around whites having their tongues removed with machetes, their women raped and their children killed.
It will then come as no surprise that the conservative FW de Klerk Foundation lodged a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission, citing 45 posts on social media that comprised what De Klerk termed “the most virulent and dangerous racism — expressed in the most extreme and violent language — coming from disaffected black South Africans”.
What should come as a surprise, though, is the public response. The African National Congress said the De Klerk complaint was “insulting black people”, while the SA Communist Party condemned him as “unrepentantly racist”.
Advocate Pierre de Vos, a University of Cape Town academic and a prolific commentator on legal issues, joined the almost universal condemnation and addressed FW directly “If you have no moral authority nor any political credibility maybe it’s better to be quiet in order not to invite ridicule?”
I hold no particular brief for FW and certainly don’t idolise him. My only encounter with him is that 30 years ago we once stood shoulder to shoulder at a public urinal in some small town where I was covering a National Party meeting for the Sunday Tribune.
Despite the fact that we both were staring fixedly straight ahead at the wall, I am pretty certain that he hangs right. But I think not so far right that he can be described as “unrepentantly racist”. His unbanning of the ANC and surrender of power should suffice to negate that demonisation.
In fact, with the Sparrow incident, FW displayed an even-handedness that Zuma — and De Vos — could do well to emulate. He condemned her immediately and unequivocally for her “deeply insulting and racist” remarks.
The response to FW is indicative of a sinister trend. There is taking place in SA an insidious closing down of political space. Increasingly, the only people whose opinions will be tolerated are those who have been vetted by the ANC and a relatively small but influential social media band of self-appointed arbiters of political acceptability.
But the stability of a still fragile democracy requires more than listening only to the voices that we approve of. It means that individuals and groups who despise and disagree with one another nevertheless accord one another a ready voice and a respectful ear.
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