Race is dividing South Africa and robust freedom of speech should be promoted for the sake of a freer public discourse in search of mutual understanding, former presidents FW de Klerk and Kgalema Motlanthe, and business tycoon, Johann Rupert, said in Cape Town on Tuesday.
“Freedom of speech is totally under attack. I mean Zelda la Grange is not a racist, she may have made a faux pas but she is not a racist,” Johann Rupert told a conference held by the FW de Klerk Foundation to mark the former president’s unbanning of the liberation movement 25 years ago.
“If we disagree with somebody in this country, he is a racist,” Rupert said, adding that it was the ready response of the government to criticism, in the same way the apartheid regime labelled those who opposed it communists and enemies of the state.
“So nothing is new, it started then.
“The biggest concern I have is this tendency to focus on who said something instead of what is being said,” Rupert said at the end of a speech that bleakly stated that the rule of law, farmers and food security, and the prerequisites for economic growth were all at risk.
Joking that his words would be viewed through the prism of his wealth, he added: “Why can’t we have free debates? I am prepared to sit with (Economic Freedom Fighters leader) Mr (Julius) Malema. If he is right then I’ve got to change. But we should, in an atypical way, have an open debate, a totally open debate.”
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe deplored that South Africans criticised the country’s “black government”, saying it was both a political misnomer – because the government was democratically elected – and an indicator of division.
“Labelling the government black may say more about their thinking than anything they are trying to express. The result is a misinformed and misleading discourse which often entrenches social stereotypes, fuelling feelings of alienation.”
Motlanthe said this was evidenced in the race rows that raged on social media in recent weeks.
“If there is one space that provides a useful index (of) racial relations in the country it is social media. In the recent past the social media space has seen torrential racial abuses across the social spectrum openly advocating the biological, historical, economic and social utility of the construct of race as the organising principle in human affairs.
“Most disheartening about this open manifestation of racial hostilities is the debilitating effects on what we are trying to build; a nation united in diversity.”
Motlanthe said the only comfort he found in the discourse was that it served as a barometer for the state of social cohesion, and went on to blame it on social inequality.
Inequality polarising the nation
He said 25 years after FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the liberation movement, inequality was greater than it was on February 2 1990, and this was polarising the nation and undermining Nelson Mandela’s ideal of non-racialism.
“People are more amenable to the discourse of high ideals such as non-racialism and national unity when their stomachs are full. They are likely to agree that we have a shared future if they have gainful employment.”
Motlanthe said the divide was coloured and compounded by the fact that South Africa was “a society with deep roots of racial and ethnic self-consciousness”.
The conference comes less than a month after President Jacob Zuma told an ANC fundraiser “all the trouble began” in 1652 when Dutch coloniser Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape, sparking an outburst from La Grange for which she was branded a racist and apologised.
Motlanthe however defended Zuma’s right to speak about apartheid, telling the largely white audience: “To speak of apartheid and colonialism is effectively to speak of an unfair system in the production, distribution and consumption of resources”.
“Unity and social cohesion are like trees, they need roots to grow and be strong. They are embedded in social justice.”
‘Slippery slope to censorship
Motlanthe said he disagreed with Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich’s opposition to renaming Table Bay Boulevard after De Klerk because styming free speech would put the country on the “slippery slope” to censorship.
“People like Tony Ehrenreich must be granted the space to express themselves,” he said. “If they are wrong, they are wrong.”
Rupert, in a subsequent discussion, said he found it troubling that those who had traded racial abuse on Twitter were educated enough to read and wealthy enough to own technology. He also dismissed the notion of wealth redistribution as the panacea for inequality, saying the issue was rather to create the conditions to create wealth.
De Klerk told the forum he was convinced that “what we have now is much better than what we had in the past” but that worry about the future had always been a central characteristic of being South African.
He warned that the country was at risk of betraying the Constitution by applying justice selectively, undermining the ideal of non-discrimination.
“All of us should work to ensure that those who are committed to loving will prevail over those on all sides who are retrogressing into the old patterns of hate,” he concluded.
On February 2 1990 De Klerk unbanned the ANC, SACP and the PAC and announced the liberation of Mandela and other political prisoners. – Sapa