Picture: ISTOCK
Two incidents that tell a wider story about deeply entrenched attitudes on race have come under the spotlight, says the writer. Picture: ISTOCK

SA IS rapidly becoming a country in which values such as understanding, conversational civility and respect for others are weakening. There is a general spirit of anger about race relations alongside disappointment over government failure.

The racially charged language that increasingly marks our conversations on social media demonstrates the distance we still have to travel in solidifying mutual respect, developing an understanding of the other and building stronger bonds of interracial trust. Without such trust, it is nearly impossible to forge any shared aspiration of the future. This, in turn, puts obstacles in the way of developing common ground to tackle challenges that hold the country back, including governance weaknesses, a faltering economy and a poor education system.

That we seem to have run out of vocabulary for decent conversations is borne out by the fact that many newsrooms have had to close their online comment sections due to an increase in the use of racially abusive language. Yet still some deny that racism remains a glaring aspect of SA’s ugly underbelly. By failing to confront the monster of racism today, and choosing instead to bury our heads in the sand, we are cursing future generations who will have to grapple with it.

Last week, two incidents that tell a wider story about deeply entrenched attitudes on race came under the spotlight. Penny Sparrow, a former estate agent, likened black people to monkeys. This type of brazen racism is easy to denounce. Even those who may still hold racist views about blacks would condemn such stereotyping, as they would find it uncouth and embarrassing.

There is also the racism that is subtler, and nestles comfortably at dinner table conversations. Its preoccupation is with questioning the professional progress of black people as a function of premature promotion; and their failures attributed to laziness. On the other hand, the social mobility of white people is put down to merit and hard work, even when they lack appropriate qualifications, while their lack of progress is pinned on the government’s equity policies. It is a discourse that, from time to time, slips into public discourse, dressed up as free speech.

Chris Hart, a prominent commentator and strategist employed by Standard Bank, had his prejudices thinly veiled in the genteel language of dinner table conversations. He asserted that 25 years after apartheid has ended, victims are increasing, with "their sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities". As a prominent commentator, he felt unburdened from requirements to offer evidence. Fatuously, he later said his comments were about slow growth. It is commendable that Standard Bank, his employer, suspended him swiftly.

Two other prominent personalities felt the urge to come out in defence of this vitriol. Radio jock Gareth Cliff and former Democratic Alliance strategist Ryan Coetzee invoked the supremacy of free speech. Here, they were not defending a value that would contribute to building a healthy society that emerged from years of racism. Whether they knew it or not, they were instead defending the "right" of those who hold racist views to denude black people of their dignity.

Assertions such as the ones hashed out by Sparrow and Hart — and they are not the only ones — signify poverty of dialogue. Theirs is a language whose intention is not to stimulate a constructive debate, but bears the visceral intensity of prejudice. It is these kinds of views that sustain the potency of race as a defining feature of our politics. Racially inflammatory or demeaning language is not something that should be tolerated. Those who occupy spaces of influence in society, opinion makers, political leaders and civic leaders, have a role to play in nurturing understanding and shaping a vocabulary that cultivates healthy political and social dialogues.

• Qobo is with the University of Johannesburg’s Pan African Institute