LETTER FROM CAPE TOWN: A blunt blade remains a dangerous weapon

EVEN the sharpest blade will eventually go blunt through overuse. Funnily enough, that is not an ingenious introduction to the #FeesMustFall debate, which is undoubtedly occupying a good deal of real estate in this edition after a tumultuous week of university fee protests.

While on the subject, though, allow me to state that if I had to put money on whether #BladeMustFall or #StudentsMustFall will come to pass first, I would not be wasting any of my rapidly devaluing rands betting on the latter. My intro was in fact intended to be a cunning way into what was, until it was eclipsed over the past week, SA’s favourite topic of debate: the race issue.

Of course, race and historic disadvantage are relevant to the Fees Must Fall movement too, but it is encouraging to see that they are not being allowed to obscure the real issues, as has so often happened in the past. Perhaps that’s because the cost of tertiary education in SA is very much a middle-class problem, regardless of race.

As with access to justice, or housing, the middle classes are frequently neither rich enough to afford them nor poor enough to qualify for state assistance.

The dulled blade analogy refers to the habit shared by all too many South Africans who are inclined to assume a racial basis for every dispute that occurs between people or organisations that can be distinguished by outward appearance, accent, surname or membership, even when there is no rational basis for doing so. When used against white people, it can be an effective means of winning an argument by default by bullying them into shutting up, which is often referred to as “playing the race card”.

But that’s not a very accurate analogy; race as a weapon is more like a dagger, because wielded in anger, even a blunt racial blade can cause real damage to innocent tissue in a country with SA’s past. In many respects, there can be no more grievous defamatory statement than one that falsely accuses a white South African of racism, and I don’t understand why the courts haven’t seen more civil suits from people seeking redress after suffering damage to their reputations and ability to do business as a result of malevolent labelling.

That can be the case even when the blade has been overused and has lost its edge. Populist politicians such as Julius Malema cry racism with such frequency, and make such crudely racist statement themselves, that it has become like water flowing off a duck’s back. But he tends to target hardened politicians or speak in general terms. It is when ordinary individuals are involved that things turn ugly.

The Cape media have been wrestling with this issue, sparked by incidents that have been publicised and given the racial tag by Independent Media print publications in particular. Some of these have had undoubted racist overtones — the case of a white Kenilworth swimming instructor who assaulted a passing domestic worker who he had assumed to be a prostitute simply because she was black and loitering in a “white” neighbourhood is winding its way through the courts, for instance.

But others that were presented by the Cape Times as open-and-shut evidence of white Cape Town’s racist tendencies have turned out to be either nonsense or ambiguous. In a couple of instances, the charges have been dropped due to lack of evidence after further investigation, and in the so-called Tiger Tiger case, in which five white students were accused of beating up a coloured woman outside a nightclub, subsequent evidence points to flagrant abuse of racial sensitivities to distort the judicial process. Lives can be ruined in this way as surely as they can be ruined by straight, old-fashioned white-on-black racism.

During the past week, another story involving a swimming school and allegations of racism made headlines, and again, once the veneer of racial bias on the report had been scraped away, the reality seemed far more prosaic. In SA, a miscommunication can spark racial assumptions that prompt poorly researched news reports that can have devastating effects on a business such as a swimming school — even one whose prolific enrolment of black children makes nonsense of the racism accusation.

Former Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko once summed it up beautifully: “The path of divisive, racial politics is an easy one, fuelled by populist rhetoric and conspiracy theories, straw men and distorted facts. It also appeals to the most wounded parts of the South African psyche — the anger, shame, denial, and deficit of self-esteem which apartheid has bequeathed to us.

“It is the path of easy villains, lack of empathy and understanding, and the peddling of fear and loathing and resentment. This is also why it is profoundly bad for SA and bad for democracy.”

• Marrs is Cape editor

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