How do we respond to racism?




Most certainly Penny Sparrow and Justin van Vuuren and a number of others have recently made comments on social media that were deeply hurtful to many people. The storm that these have released in response is clear evidence of that.

So what do we do now? How do we respond? Do we follow the freedom of speech line of thought, as Gareth Cliff tried to do? Or do we make calls for these people (and by extension perhaps all white people) to be killed, as a government official has done? Should we pass additional legislation that will make these kinds of comments a crime? While making it a statutory crime may represent our clear denunciation of racism, this in itself does not help us much with the eventual response or intervention we need to decide, especially as we know that the conventional response of criminal punishment or the threat of it are woefully ineffective in changing behaviour.

There are existing laws under which this behaviour can be sanctioned, charges have been laid, and presumably that process will begin to take its course. As it does, this provides us with an opportunity to consider the nature of the sentence that the court should impose. I hope we can have a constructive debate about this, one that contributes to moving us forward as a country. I believe the vision of restorative justice provides us with some pointers:

• Justice is not about harming people who have caused harm – that’s revenge. Justice is about striving for an ideal and affirming values, responding strongly when central values and principles are infringed

• A number of TRC victims have shown us the way. Consider, for example, the testimony of Mrs Ngewu. In the final TRC report her response on prison sentences for the perpetrators reads as follows: “I think that all South Africans should be committed to the idea of re-accepting these people back into the community. We do not want to return the evil that perpetrators committed to the nation. We want to demonstrate humanness (ubuntu) towards them so that (it) in turn may restore their own humanity”

• So this suggests that the humanity of someone who displays racist attitudes has itself been impaired. Justice is most certainly primarily concerned with restoring the dignity of those who have been hurt, but it is also concerned with the offenders. How we do we restore their dignity and humanity? I think this is an opportunity for our justice system to maximise its educational function, to reinforce and teach our society about our foundational constitutional principle of human dignity

• Ms Sparrow made a half hearted apology which appears to have been roundly rejected, so it is worth thinking about why 'just saying sorry' is not enough and what kind of process leads to proper restorative justice including, where it 'wells up', a sincere apology. Part of the reason her apology failed to impress is that she did not properly acknowledge responsibility. It was along the lines of: 'I did not mean to hurt anyone, but if anyone was hurt I am sorry'. She also does not appear to have really reflected on what she did, and why it hurt people, but rather is responding to an outpouring of anger and hurt by trying to explain that she didn't mean to hurt anyone. Contrast this with the apology of ENCA news anchor Andrew Barnes in which he acknowledged the hurt his comments about Minister Motshekga caused and apologised unconditionally. What kind of process might help Ms Sparrow to understand the impact of her words?

• We also need to look at broader underlying issues at stake here, and there are many, such as the need for radical, ongoing economic transformation, but also obvious collateral issues that have not feature in the conversation.

It would be possible to facilitate a group process of mediation and dialogue that involves representative groups either as an alternative to a trial or as part of the sentencing procedures. There could be ways to structure this that could help Ms Sparrow understand the hurt she caused and explore ways for her to make this right. It could perhaps pick up on government’s National Action Plan to Combat Racism. Such a process would be far more useful and constructive than a conventional trial and sentence.