kollapen battles for equality

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

By way of physique, Jody Kollapen would never cut it as a wrestler.

There's nothing in his frame to suggest that even if he were to commence a strict regimen of pumping iron today, he'd develop half the lump of flesh normally flaunted on WWE.

He's toning his muscles as you read this, ready to enter the ring tomorrow to try what has evaded men of brawn before him - calling soccer bigwig Irvin Khoza to order.

A lawyer by trade, the only thing going for Kollapen in this fight is his brain, a part of him that has never failed him.

In a carefully worded letter to the chairman of the Local Organising Committee, dated February 20 2008, Kollapen writes: "The Commission has taken note of the remarks you made at a media briefing on Monday February 18 during the course of which you said words to the effect that you had asked a journalist who was interviewing you to 'stop thinking like a k ...'."

Like much other dirty linen that carrying the Khoza name - like the millions owed to SARS and the used rifle, the kaffir issue has been the talk of the town, albeit, when the views got heated only in hushed tones.

The letter says, "Your statement has caused hurt and indignity to many South Africans and we do believe that irrespective of your motive at the time you should, in order that we may move forward, apologise to the people of South Africa for the remarks that you made."

Just before he signed the letter, Kollapen, as chairman of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), warned almost like a dog that knows it will not bite but wants to bark all the same: "We accordingly trust that you will revert to us by no later than February 29 with your response, failing which we shall have no option but to consider instituting proceedings in the Equality Court."

To his credit, the Orlando Pirates boss has since got back to the HRC, says Kollapen, to inform them he was out of the country over the past weekend and would duly get in touch.

We'll wait and see what tomorrow brings.

Kollapen says while he's aware that African-Americans have taken back ownership of the word nigger, the derogatory term used to refer to black people in the US in the period before enlightenment, he's not sure if South Africans are ready, given the sensitivities of our history, to use kaffir without offending others.

On Wednesday the commission will convene a public session at which the Forum of Black Journalists (FBJ) will explain their position regarding the exclusion of white journos from a Sandton City function at which they had hosted ANC president Jacob Zuma.

The Johannesburg-based Talk Radio 702, whose journalist Stephen Grootes was thrown out of the blacks-only affair, filed a complaint with the HRC. To add drama to the incident two Fridays ago, colleagues Yusuf Abramjee and Kieno Kammies, an Indian and Coloured, respectively, who qualified to sit in, in terms of FBJ terminology, walked out in solidarity with their ejected buddy.

While key protagonists 702 and the FBJ will kick off the debate at the HRC gathering, other interested parties like South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) have been invited.

The commission's role, says its chairman, is "to facilitate the discussion; add to the richness of the discussion".

Kollapen says he doesn't find it objectionable that, say, black farmers might want to found an organisation to articulate their needs which, given our historical past, would be special: "But if a white guy says he realises the need for such an organisation and wants to help it fight for the cause of black farmers, it would not be fair to deny him membership, based only on the colour of his skin."

Ever the lawman, used to making his point in the midst of courtroom drama, he hauls another example from his bag of tricks. It would be imprudent to exclude a Tshivenda-speaking person from a body formed to advance isiZulu when his sole purpose for wishing to belong is that he likes isiZulu.

The dust has settled on the shame involving four young bigots from the University of Free State who urinated into food they later fed to unsuspecting black workers.

The HRC is on the case and Kollapen is adamant that when such despicable conduct takes place, one shouldn't compromise.

"We got involved with the university long before this incident," he says. "We were invited last year to offer workshops to staff and students on integration."

The first workshop went well, says Kollapen, but the second never took place since the commission received correspondence that attendants saw no benefits in the course.

About the current brouhaha, he says: "We met with the victims and promised them whatever assistance they might need in terms of getting reparation."

The pacifist in him tells Kollapen the incident may be symptomatic of a broader problem.

Anybody can approach the HRC, he says, from groups such as the AfriForum, which is making a name for itself as the champion of white Afrikaner rights to the average Joe Soap.

Daily the commissions' Parktown offices are inundated with letters, faxes and telephone calls from people and groups wishing to raise a stink about this or other racial matter.

As we spoke, he'd just taken delivery of a letter from Helen Zille, leader of the DA in connection with the Free State urine saga.

When 18-year-old Johan Nel placed racial tension on a knife-edge in the North West dorpie of Swartruggens after a shooting spree that left four people dead, the HRC quickly dispatched a team to Skielik, the squatter settlement just a stone's throw from town.

No one could fault the HRC for jumping only when the victims were black as a while before the Nel madness, when a white farmer was hacked to death in the area, Commissioner Tom Manthata drove to Swartruggens to offer his condolences.

The HRC, established in 1995 to promote the idea of human rights, has had its successes, notably the inquiry into racism in the media at the time when it had Barney Pityana at the helm.

Kollapen beams with pride at the conclusion of yet another case at the Equality Court, where they have won compensation for a domestic who had laid a complaint against her employers.

In the case, the husband, wishing to register his displeasure with the wife at the maid's sloppy work, had inadvertently SMSd the gripe - in which he refers to the worker as a kaffir bitch - to the maid!

The court has once ruled in Kollapen's own favour before when, in 2003, Centurion salon owner Koos du Preez had refused to cut his hair.

His hair was not in the custom of his clientelle - read: white.

On the morning of our meeting, he'd been a guest on radio alongside Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan. During the interview a call came through his mobile, an Australian television station wanted him on their show. Capricorn FM had also begged for an audience.

That was last week; this week will be a riot.

He just prays Khoza will apologise so that he can get on with the less cantankerous business of the HRC, like travelling to the Kalahari to meet with forgotten tribes of the Republic.