Charisse Zeifert

Racism will consume us until we start tolerating one another

It began with a now notorious Facebook comment by Penny Sparrow likening black beach-goers to monkeys, and most recently surfaced in the form of "kill a Jew" graffiti at Wits University during the #FeesMustFall protest.

It would seem that for many, the best way to respond to any form of racism is by answering in kind.
Such tit-for-tat abuse has merely seen the anger in our country being fuelled further, with the South African Hate Crimes Commission cautioning us not to "fight racism with racism".
Have we, as a nation, become so desensitized and unconcerned about the hurt we cause each other, thinking that "anything goes"?

Following the Wits graffiti incident, the Vuvuzela, the Wits student newspaper, posted the story on its Facebook page.

In response, someone posted in the comments section, a negative caricature of Jews, a sinister image of scheming evil and corruption of the type used by the hateful regime of Nazi Germany to justify its genocide against the Jews in Europe.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies asked that the caricature be removed. The immediate response was: what is anti-semitic about it and why did the Jewish community find it so offensive? Only then did they remove it. And herein lies the crux of this issue.

Cultural sensitivities, historical context and beliefs all play a role in what, to some, is fair comment, and to others, is simply racist. During his recent visit to SA Jonathan Vick, an expert on cyber hate from the American human rights organisation the anti-Defarmation League, gave the following example: "It happened recently that a female Indian Member of Parliament was constantly told 'to catch the bus' during meetings.

"A seemingly harmless statement, one would think, until one learns that in India women are greatly at risk of being attacked or raped in the buses. They were, in essence, threatening her with violence."
South Africans, in light of our own history, have no need of international examples as to why context is so important. The furore over the spear painting a few years back touched a raw nerve for many given the demeaning way in which naked black bodies have been depicted in the past. For Muslims, cartoons of the prophet Mohammed are a red-flag, as are stereotypes linking Muslims to terrorism.
Holocaust denial: this intimates that Jews are so dishonest, manipulative and morally corrupt as to be able to fabricate the story of their own annihilation to persuade the world at large to believe it. 

Conspiracy theory: the notion that Jews control the economy, the media, politics and everything else is likewise racism, as it depicts Jews to have a superiority complex, hate all non-Jews and continually seek undermine others' welfare to further their own ends.

South Africa is experiencing social turbulence. Poverty, unemployment, unaffordable education, poor service delivery, crime and violence against women are daily realities that we must grapple with. It is commonplace in such circumstances for people, in their fear, anger and frustration, to seek scapegoats to blamed for all of society's ills. To truly be liberated, we have to learn more about each other, and strive to be tolerant and empathetic.

Zeifert is head of communications at South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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