RACE CARD CAN FUEL PREJUDICES

THIS week South Africa reacted with disbelief and outrage at the bizarre decision in Canada to grant Brandon Huntley refugee status; endorsing his claim that his life was in danger at the hands of blacks.

THIS week South Africa reacted with disbelief and outrage at the bizarre decision in Canada to grant Brandon Huntley refugee status; endorsing his claim that his life was in danger at the hands of blacks.

The decision was roundly condemned in newspaper editorials. The Times called against the racial identification of victims and perpetrators of crime and violence. In the same vein, Sowetan declared "crime knows no skin colour". The Herald was one with Sowetan and The Timesthat most victims of crime were in fact black.

The furore brought back bitter memories of the turbulent 1990s.

I remembered one crime reporter - actually a cop masquerading as a journalist on a national daily newspaper - reporting that "three Zulus were seen fleeing" the scene of a bloody attack on the Reef.

Racial identification of victims and culprits is considered a strict no-no by most progressive media locally and abroad - unless pertinent. The South African Press Code specifically precludes, among other things, mentioning a person's race, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or illness unless it is strictly relevant. The Avusa Media editorial policy calls for extreme care so as not to fuel prejudice and xenophobia.

There is, sadly, an abundance of examples of clear-cut racist attacks and crimes in our country. Barend Strydom's massacre of black people in Pretoria was motivated by hatred. There are just as many cases where the race of the protagonist is totally irrelevant. What, for example, would be the point of telling people that the defending champion in a boxing match is white and the contender black?

Admittedly, that might be much easier than having to remember which one of them is wearing the maroon or crimson trunks. But it would still be inappropriate for the commentator in, say, the 1979 Kallie Knoetze and John Tate encounter to have told us that the black guy (Tate) is walloping the white guy (Knoetze) - even in the racially charged atmosphere of those times.

What many journalists struggle with is whether they can identify suspects in a crime by race. It is important to pause and ask what purpose such information is supposed to serve. Clearly, if the answer is to help positively identify the suspect, it would be foolhardy to avoid mentioning race, which is a vital distinguishing feature among people.

Thus, it is necessary to inform the public that the dangerous scoundrel they are expected to look out for is either white, black African, coloured or Indian. Obfuscating such an important distinguishing feature would be unhelpful - even if it got high marks for political correctness.

However, the race tag would have to be ditched as soon as the suspect is safely behind bars. Harping on about a suspected burglar's skin colour after he has been arrested serves no useful purpose. It simply fuels racial stereotypes.

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