The law can change racist minds

Much recent news and public discourse might seem to indicate that South Africa’s non-racial rainbow is fading. Racism, its expression and its consequences, seem to be all around.

First prize goes to former real estate agent Vicki Momberg. She was recently sentenced to a three year jail term (one year suspended) for the vicious racial abuse of black traffic officers and police emergency call centre operators attempting to help her after a smash and grab incident.

Then there is the land reform debate. Its enormous complexity is swept aside by both black populist politicians demanding the return of land “stolen” by whites and the white right claiming that white farmers are under siege and fear for their lives.

In reply to Business Day columnist Peter Bruce’s stating that the extent of farm murders has been grossly exaggerated, a white correspondent to the newspaper cited approvingly the man generally accepted as the architect of the brutal policy of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd:

Verwoerd felt that the only way whites in SA would survive would be if some system could be devised to that they could maintain control of their destiny within a Western framework. Otherwise, they would simply be overwhelmed… Now we are experiencing what Verwoerd predicted. Whites are being bullied incessantly and deprived of their assets by black politicians.

How on earth should South Africans deal with all this? There is, frankly, no easy answer to this question. But here are a few considerations.


Complex problem

Journalist Joshua Carstens, writing in City Press, suggested that Momberg’s crude racism was “simply the tip of an iceberg”. He had no quarrel with her sentence, but wondered whether it would work. He argued that while it might be possible to regulate people’s behaviour,

you can’t legalise people’s minds and hearts.

Unexpressed racism may be even more dangerous if it is left lurking below the surface. He went on to encourage like-minded whites to take a stronger stand against racism in their private lives.

Nothing wrong with that at all. Indeed, its sentiment is highly commendable. But, would it really be better if racists displayed their honesty by roundly abusing black people? Or is it better if they curb their lips for fear of joining Momberg in jail?

Legislation changing minds

It’s wrong, I think, to suggest that legislation cannot change minds. True, it might often take the long haul. But laws do more than reflect social norms: they mould them.

The law is meant to entrench what society thinks is right. If it prescribes that racism, sexism or homophobia are wrong, there is probably a better chance that people will come to accept it in genuine democracies (especially over the generations). But the law can also be used to effect structural change.

Take for instance black economic empowerment and equity employment legislation. Their pros and cons are much debated, yet it seems difficult to deny that without them, South Africa would have a much stronger white minority profile today than it would without them.

For all their faults, such laws and associated state pressures for “demographic representivity” would seem to have been a necessary element in decolonising society. This is not to deny that they come with numerous difficulties.

This is shown by the case of Mark Lamberti, chief executive officer of Imperial Holdings. He called Adila Chowan, a Muslim Indian woman who had become group financial manager at the company’s subsidiary, a “female employment equity” candidate in the presence of other senior managers. Lamberti was convicted in the High Court of impairing her dignity and ordered to pay her costs and yet to be decided damages.

Lamberti has responded by insisting that he is not a racist. Whether or not his actions were racist were not dealt with by the court; the judgment was that he had offended the complainant’s dignity. Whether or not one’s view is that he was racist and/or sexist, it is beyond doubt that his behaviour was thoroughly crass.

Nonetheless, it points to a dilemma.

Constructive ambiguity

Equity employment is designed to promote fairness in the workplace and black upward mobility in the face of white structural privilege. But the irony is, as Chowan has so bravely highlighted, black and female candidates resent being labelled as equity employment candidates.

They point out, correctly, that it is demeaning to any black or woman appointee to say that they got the job because they were black or female. They want to be recognised as having been appointed on merit. Yet the problem is that without such goads as equity employment legislation, progress towards racial equality in the workplace would almost certainly be a lot slower.

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is wrestling with this very issue. The party has long claimed that it has become increasingly racially diverse as the governing ANC has in practice and much rhetoric withdrawn from non-racialism. Yet although the DA now has a black leader in Mmusi Maimane, there has been rising discontent among its black membership that the party is still dominated by a conservative old guard of whites.

This has led to calls for the introduction of race-based quotas, which many in the party have resisted. They complain that such group determined racial categorisation would run against the DA’s liberalism, which is based on the advancement of individual rights.

Reportedly, the party’s senior leadership arrived at a compromise proposal for putting to the DA’s federal congress which committed it to taking,

active steps to promote and advance diversity… without recourse to rigid formulae or quotas.

Complex problem

What should be drawn from all this? Probably many things. But one certainty is that more humility is necessary from all those engaged in the debate. People must accept that there are no easy answers. The project of rendering South Africa more equal is one of enormous complexity, fraught with as many philosophical problems as structural and political ones.

Alas, there will be more Mombergs, more Lambertis and more people seeking to revive Verwoerd and render his memory respectable. There will be more black populism in response.

Yes, it’s almost certainly going to be a rough ride, but those South Africans who don’t believe or don’t want to believe that a better South Africa is possible should be honest about it – and bugger off elsewhere.

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Roger Southall
Roger Southall
Political analyst Professor.

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