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Social media is a racist’s sanctuary

13 February 2017

Thandiwe Matthews

DESPITE the significant achievements over the past 22 years of democracy, deep inequalities and unfair discrimination remain commonplace. The majority of complaints received by the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) relate to discrimination based on race.

During the 2015/2016 financial year, the SAHRC received 505 race-related complaints.

This figure must be understood in the context of the constitution. Section 9 of the constitution protects the right to equality and prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of 16 grounds, including – but not limited to – race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

The SAHRC categorises complaints according to these grounds.

Race-related complaints constituted twothirds of the 749 complaints that fall under the broader category of equality.  In addition to race, xenophobic discrimination on the grounds of nationality, social and ethnic origin remains rife.

The advent of social media has further complicated the country’s attempts to address discrimination, deeply entrenched in our society by institutionalised discrimination as a defining feature of apartheid.

Recent highly publicised incidents, such as the Penny Sparrow, Justin van Vuuren, Chris Hart and Velaphi Khumalo matters, were all highlighted through social media, and point to the evolving challenges in addressing racism.

The SAHRC does not identify “social media” as a specific category in classifying the human rights complaints it receives. However, social media is increasingly being cited as a “location” in which race based equality complaints arise.

Recent incidents on social media platforms illustrate the urgent need for intervention and leadership in confronting discrimination and issues related to the right to equality – and by extension, racism.

A number of responses, through policy aimed at reform and legislative frameworks, have been put in place with varying degrees of success.
These include the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances (NAP), the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, and the National Development Plan (NDP).

The SAHRC will host a National Investigative Hearing on Racism and Social Media in SA on Wednesday and Thursday. It is intended to discuss allegations of racism that arise on social media, and build on the SAHRC’s approach to issues of racial discrimination and social cohesion.
The purpose of the National Hearing is to arrive at an understanding of what constitutes racism in the context of social media and who should be held accountable.

Racism includes both behavioural and attitudinal challenges, consisting of varying degrees of prejudice that manifests in both overt and subtle forms of conduct. While our legal framework provides for the protection of rights against racist conduct, addressing racist thought that is embedded and socialised is far more complex.

In addition, the institutionalisation and persisting structural forms of discrimination which feed racist conduct persist – as do economic and social indicators of poverty, income inequality, unemployment and a lack of access to opportunities, stratified by race. The social complexities that give rise to the phenomenon of racism require more holistic responses, both structured and unstructured, to advance national conversations about race, racism and racial discrimination.

Without a meaningful and effective way of addressing entrenched racial attitudes and power imbalances, both real and perceived, substantive empowerment of marginalised groups remains limited. Social media have amplified the deep historical fissures that continue to divide society despite significant achievements over the past two decades of democracy.

The national hearing seeks to chart a unified, multifaceted and coherent way forward, and to build on the SAHRC’s existing work toward the advancement of substantive equality. While debates on social media should remain robust, they should also be cognisant of the ideals of our constitutional democracy, founded on the values.

This article appeared on The Star of Monday 13 February 2017

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Understanding PAIA

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.

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