New country for old racists
IF you believe our local papers, South Africa has an unlikely heroine. The girlfriend of the Free State Four. The Times reported that The Reitz racism video would have escaped notice if a jilted beau of one of the students hadn’t turned them in.
The video had apparently been on the file-sharing service at the university since September last year. If the Reitz video had not been exposed, the recording would probably have continued to be shared by like-minded students opposed to university integration. And, neither you nor I would have been any the wiser.
In case you have been comatose for the past week, four Afrikaner students from the University of the Free State duped black workers to star in a video that poked fun at the racial integration of UFS hostels. The video simulated a humiliating initiation ritual intended for black students. The finale was a scene in which a student allegedly urinated into a stew which was fed to the workers. The workers received a bottle of whiskey each for playing along.
The video was first brought to local and international media attention by two students looking to illegally download the movie Jumper on the university peer-to-peer network DC++ (but that's a blog for another day).
The Reitz incident has inadvertently exposed another country – online – where groups especially those who feel politically powerless in the ‘real’ South Africa – have found a home. Regrettably, instead of joining the national conversation, some groups further marginalise themselves in exclusive networks whose raison d’être is often to reinforce a uniform social identity. These spaces offer safe zones where often some of the most retrograde behaviours and attitudes are reinforced. Unlike the mainstream media that provides a public space where citizens can engage in a talking cure for what ails the body politic, often no dissent is permitted in these networks. A spiral of silence mutes discussion of anything that would challenge attitudes such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia thus creating a virtual laager.
But, social networks based on 'culture' ain't necessarily a bad thing. Some groups have used the web to celebrate their difference in a positive way without 'othering' or denigration. For example, the so-called coloured community (of which I number) uses Bruin-ou.com to celebrate a new and positive culture and subvert apartheid racist stereotypes like Gatiep and Maria. Also, social media (like blogs) offer a useful safety valve for some groups who may otherwise tend towards violence (though it could also be used to mobilise for violence).
Don't ban 'em
Unfortunately, the existence of the more radical and offensive private online networks - such as child pornographers, racial supremacists and terrorists - threaten Internet freedom and are the chief inspiration for dystopian visions of the web. They are the bogeymen used by legislators, like the drafters of the Film and Publications Amendment bill who naively think that cracking down on the Internet and freedom of expression will eliminate them.
As I indicated in a previous post, under section 16(1) of the pending Film and Publications' bill, anyone can ask the FPB to classify a publication which is distributed in the Republic to be classified under categories of violence, sex, nudity, racism and prejudice. All things considered then, it would have been possible for the Film and Publications Board to restrict public access to the Reitz video (though it is unlikely that it could be given authority to ban the distribution of the material completely) under the Bill. The material could also have restricted under provisions of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000.
Thankfully, this did not happen. Instead, the Reitz video, which was originally intended to ridicule and denigrate people by virtue of their race, class, gender and education in private, was appropriated as a rallying point for debates around racial transformation. The national recommittment to non-racism by many on TV, radio, in newspapers and the web following the airing of the Reitz video ought to give legislators presently debating the the Film and Publications Amendment Bill this week (behind closed doors nogal) reason for pause.
* South African audiences are not fools who absorb the dominant code of a text by osmosis.
* Publication is often necessary and useful in order to allow an objectionable text or object to be appropriated for purposes of mobilisation or discourse against its effects. Do you think that there would have been such a groundswell of support if access to Reitz video had been restricted?
* It's hard for media to support or develop a progressive consensus with one hand tied behind its back.
Force for good
So, online social tools can be used to support communities for good or ill. In the US, Republican Senator George Allen was exposed making a racist slur against an Asian campaign worker of his political opponent. The video ended up on Youtube and caused considerable damage to his campaign. And who can forget the mobile recording that busted Judge Nkola Motata cursing out the owners of a house in the North of Johannesburg after he crashed into their wall? The case is still to be heard but the adage: "As sober as a judge" may never recover.
Online social tools and spaces may create a new country for old racists, but it has also left the wicked with fewer places to hide – as long as media and citizens have the power to shine a light.
oh, and apologies to the brothers Coen