“The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour”. (from the SAHRC website)
All very laudable and touchy-feely, so why is it that so many South Africans, particularly those with a paler complexion, feel that the “without fear or favour” bit could do with an update?
My connection to the SAHRC goes way back to 1998 when I was summoned to appear before the SAHRC to explain an Out to Lunch column I had written. At the time Barney Pityana was in charge of the SAHRC and, following a couple of complaints of racism within the media, they decided to embark on an inquisition to investigate it and flush it out.
The last thing a young democracy needed was racism lurking, even subliminally, within the pages of a high circulation Sunday newspaper. They even went to all the trouble of employing a hapless young researcher called Claudia Braude whose task it was to winkle out this racism and expose it for all to see. Ms Braude was reportedly paid R80 000 for her troubles and when you were being paid that sort of money back then you couldn’t exactly go back to Barney Pityana and say that, despite your best efforts, all you could come up with was the published picture of a marabou stork standing near a starving black child somewhere in Africa, thereby demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt that the media were racist.
I’m ashamed to admit that I did mock Ms Braude (as did much of the media) at the time because it seemed perfectly obvious to all of us that she had already been given the desired findings of the SAHRC by Barney (whom I disrespectfully referred to as “Barmy Pyjamas” after that) and told to construct a narrative that fitted.
My “great sin” had been to pen a column when that serial philanderer Bill Clinton graced our shores with his presence. As is always the case with such visits, there are plenty of support personnel and I had sardonically commented that many African-Americans in his entourage no doubt find the idea of returning to Mother Africa very attractive until they realised that, had their ancestors not been abducted by slave traders, they too could be living in a tin shack with no electricity or running water.
When the column was published it provoked no reaction at all, so I was quite surprised a few weeks later to get a communication from the SAHRC asking me to explain what I meant. As far as I can recall I dropped them a cheery note pointing out that Out to Lunch was a column as opposed to a news report and that the comment was self explanatory. This didn’t go down well and I was informed that there had been complaints from two parties with the accusation that this was “hate speech”.
I had never heard of the two complainants but I learned from the SAHRC that they were the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Accountants. After checking my diary to see whether I had failed to notice it was April 1st (it wasn’t) I sent a fairly terse note to the SAHRC pointing out that the constitution prohibits discrimination on the ground of race and colour and that, therefore, I proposed to ignore any demands for an explanation from members of two overtly racist organisations who were impertinently suggesting that it was I who was the racist.
This appeared to do the trick and the SAHRC declined to proceed further with the complaint. However, Barmy Pyjamas now had the bit between his teeth and his mission to purge the SA media carried on in the words of Dr. Daryl Glaser of the University of Strathclyde:
“For a while in February 2000 this same organisation (SAHRC) appeared to be actively organising the death of one part of South Africa’s developing human rights culture, namely the institution of press and media freedom. Over the course of the month more than 30 media organisations were issued with subpoenas requiring that they explain their handling of race issues at hearings organised by the SAHRC”.
For some reason, wires had become crossed at the SAHRC and they had got it into their heads that I was the editor of the Sunday Times, hence the arrival of a subpoena. I passed it on to the real editor at the time who happened to be Mike Robertson. However it looked as though I would also have to attend the hearing to explain myself. Unfortunately the date of the hearing clashed horribly with a trip I was scheduled to make to the South of Spain to drive the new Porsche Turbo. I certainly wasn’t going to give that one up so I dropped an apologetic note to the SAHRC explaining that I was a devout catholic and had to go and worship at the shrine of Santa Portia di Turba in Spain. I arrived back from the car launch to hear my editor stoutly defending me on the radio.
My most recent “run in” with the SAHRC was back in 2008 when I got the boot from the ST for writing a column they eventually decided was “racist” five days after it was published. Several official complaints had been made to the SAHRC accusing me of hate speech, racism, disrespect for 300 years of slavery etc., etc., and screaming that I should be dragged to the Equality Court. The SAHRC duly sent me a letter detailing the complaints and asked for a response which I sent immediately. That was the last I heard of the matter and I can only assume that the head of the SAHRC at the time had a higher regard for press freedom and irony than his predecessor of a decade earlier.
So, as you can see, vacillation and uncertainty of purpose is nothing new for the SAHRC. While I have absolutely no problem with them acting against the Sparrows, Mombergs and Catzaveloses of this world I, like many others, would expect them to act with the same degree of severity against anyone who suggests that the only trustworthy white man is a dead white man. Or those who reckon Hitler had the right idea and express such thoughts on social media. Or those who publicly advocate “slitting the throat of whiteness”. The problem is that not only do the SAHRC do nothing about such comments, they seem to endorse them. That would suggest that they have an agenda which strays some way from their declared mandate. Or maybe they’re just terrified of what the EFF might do to them should they be seen to be kowtowing to whiteys. Either way, their current efficacy is laughable as is their reputation.
David Bullard is a columnist, author and celebrity public speaker known for his controversial satire.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.
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