'hrc has got it wrong on racism'

The recent decision by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) that the membership rule of the Forum for Black Journalists (FBJ) excluding white journalists was unconstitutional has raised questions about how South Africa deals with the scourge of racism.

The commission held hearings on alleged racism by the FBJ following a complaint by some white journalists from Radio 702, a Primedia company. This was after white journalists from 702 were denied entry to a closed meeting of the FBJ because they were not members and were not invited to the event. The FBJ restricts membership to black journalists.

On April 8 the commission ordered the FBJ to amend its constitution and open membership to all race groups, or appeal against the ruling within 45 days, failing which the commission would seek a court order to compel compliance.

Firstly, in making its ruling the commission has demonstrated a failure to appreciate the special global historical responsibility of South Africa to provide leadership in developing imaginative effective strategies to combat racism.

Secondly, the commission has been caught in liberal formalism and literalism in its reading and interpretation of the relevant section(s) of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (Equality Act), thus failing to pay attention to the very explicit provisions about the objects, interpretation and guiding principles in the legislation (sections 2, 3 and 4).

Most importantly, the commission appears not to have paid any attention to the position of the media as a strategic institution of knowledge production and dissemination; and that knowledge production as well as ideas are important ideological instruments of social and political governance and rule that remain largely white-dominated and controlled.

Racism is a global historical social phenomenon. It achieved heightened development through the emergence of European capitalist imperialism that invented the Transatlantic slave trade, culminating in colonial expansion into large areas of the world, especially in Africa, the Americas and Asia.

South Africa, including Namibia, became a symbol of white racism and tyranny from the 1950s to 1994.

Modern anti-racism international standards and norms relating to crimes against humanity and gross human rights denial and violations were adopted during this period, with South Africa as the principal, but not the only target.

Among these are the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports (1985).

In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court under Article 7 reiterated that apartheid is a general serious international crime against humanity wherever and by whomsoever it may be perpetrated.

Because of its dishonourable historical legacy, the world had justified expectation that South Africa would, at the very least, provide some kind of leadership in redressing the consequences of racism and combating reincarnations or mutations of the virus.

The laudable constitutional promises in the interim and the 1996 constitutions as well as supporting legislative enactments indeed raised expectations that this would be the case.

Sadly, the SAHRC's decision in the Primedia v FBJ incident seems to be oblivious to global expectations.

The pursuit of equality, non-racialism and non-sexism are among some of the core values defining South Africa's constitutional democracy.

In this context it must surely be reasonable to expect the commission to have working knowledge of the Employment Equity Act, Equality Act, Preferential Procurement Framework Act, and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act. These are pieces of legislation aimed at redressing inequalities visited upon the majority of South Africans by apartheid.

The logic of pursuing equality and eliminating discrimination is that situations which are not substantially equal should be treated differently by creating conditions that allow the less advantaged to advance and catch up with the previously advantaged.

Where unequal situations are treated the same, real equality can never be realised.

The SAHRC's decision in this matter sends the message that real equality of ownership, management, policy making, skills development, placement and materials benefits-distribution in journalism and the media have levelled out.

Alternatively, the SAHRC is saying there are white journalists who have demonstrably committed race suicide and are now to be regarded as champions of black advancement in the profession - the voice of the voiceless.

Under either of these conditions, autonomy of collective thinking, strategy and action on the part of those who still feel disadvantaged is to be discouraged and outlawed.

The SAHRC also appears to have read the illustrative examples of unfair discrimination listed under the schedule to section 29 of the Equality Act very literally.

Professor Shadrack Gutto is director of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies, Unisa.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Tshwane University of Technology.