Law Offers Hope in Fight against Racism

Law Offers Hope in Fight against Racism

Unlike their apartheid predecessors, racist incidents can be tackled through the law that offers protection from prejudice.

At a time when racist incidents rarely make the news unless they are extremely violent or highly politicised, Xolela Mangcu reminds readers that 'ordinary' everyday racism still exists in South Africa. His article, Racist nailed as she harks back to old SA on New Year's Day (Second Take 05/01), provides a responsible and progressive platform for exploring contemporary race relations, as well as some of the challenges that face racial reconciliation today.

The incident, in which Mangcu was rendered invisible by a shop assistant and then repeatedly called "boy" by a bigoted customer, harks back to the crass prejudice of apartheid. However, as Mangcu notes, it should not be dismissed as an "isolated incident". Instead, the racist woman's actions must be understood as part of a recurrent pattern of dehumanisation, a pattern that bridges the gap between the racism of the past and that of the present. In this case, the gap is closed by the woman's very ordinary, thoughtless display of bigotry.

Where the incident does break with the past, however, is in its consequences. Unlike its apartheid predecessors, this incident can be tackled through the law, which offers protection from the experience of prejudice. While the legal consequences are still unfolding for this case, they include exposing and charging the woman for using a racial epithet. Some may argue that prosecuting a non-violent, 'ordinary' case of this nature will add to an already overburdened criminal justice system at a time when violent crime dominates and feeds society's fears. However, if everyday racism is marginalised as banal and unimportant, we are actively fostering a climate that feeds violent hatred. This is because violent racism cannot be divorced from the dehumanising attitudes that motivate and sustain it.

Important instruments such as the South African Constitution, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (2000), and the planned Equality Courts, provide a legal basis for prosecuting perpetrators of prejudice and hate speech. Racism, both spoken and acted, is illegal. However, it seems that not many people – victims or perpetrators – are aware of this. An important challenge for achieving justice is thus to ensure knowledge of the law. This necessitates a broad publicity and education campaign.

In addition, victims must be able to access legal protection. This could demand financial resources that victims simply may not have. It also demands recognition of the power relations that underpin racism. To challenge an entrenched status quo, which reflects complex socio-economic relationships, may be very difficult for an individual victim. Hence, a key concern is to protect victims from further victimisation, either by the perpetrator/s or at the hands of authorities within the criminal justice system, which is itself not immune from the stereotypes and prejudice of broader society. A legacy of racism, coupled with high levels of community mistrust, must also be overcome by the criminal justice system if due process is to succeed in punishing racism.

In cases where legal action is taken against offenders, it is important that the law is seen to work. It is only through testing the law and challenging such incidents that society can protect victims and bring perpetrators to book. And, as we learn from other societies undergoing transition, as well as our own unfinished business of the Truth and Reconciliation process, it is only when justice is seen to be done, that true reconciliation can begin. As Mangcu notes in relation to his experience, "The next step is to make sure that the case is prosecuted to the full extent of the law". The irony in this particular incident is that Mangcu's racist protagonist is relatively easy to deal with. This is because of her blatant bigotry. Unfettered by political correctness, hers is a racism of the old school, taking a more direct form than the reconstructed, rephrased attitudes that shape 'newer' forms of racist exchange. Just as strong steps must be taken to deal with open and blatant prejudice, it is equally important to recognise the subtle, ever-changing shifts in racist discourse. For it is these, coupled with perceived and real constraints within the criminal justice system, which also threaten South Africa's fragile democracy and keep social relations mired in racism.

Bronwyn Harris is a former Project Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 12 January 2003.

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