Will Stricter Laws Change Racists in South Africa?

Post-1994 South Africa has undergone many changes; obviously, as we all know, the country became a democracy, giving all citizens equal rights and protection under the Constitution. Activists and politicians worked tirelessly- often putting their lives on the line- to combat the racist and oppressive apartheid government to free South Africa and its people.

One of the pillars of our democracy is the fact that no one can be discriminated against based on their race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, and that cornerstone gave rise to democratic South Africa being named the Rainbow Nation, an integrated society that celebrates its diversity.

Racism, however, in the country is still rife and racists incidents are captured and circulated on social media too often. Arguably the most notorious case is that of former real estate agent Vicki Momberg, who was caught using the k-word on camera. Consequently, in a landmark court case, Momberg was sentenced to 3 years in prison, and became the first person in South Africa’s history to be jailed for using a racist slur.

In an attempt to combat racism even more- apart from sending a strong message about possible jail time for acts of racism- the government introduced the Prevention of Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill now being tabled in Parliament.

In short, the law calls for prison sentences (of up to 3 years) or fines for anyone who commits a verbal or physical attack that is found to be racist or hateful. The draft law was originally introduced in late 2016, and more than 75 000 public submissions were received in support of the Bill.

Of course, this begs the question of whether or not this will change racists’ behaviour and mind-sets or just deter from being overtly offensive in public spaces?

Journalist Joshua Carstens posited that “unexpressed racism may be even more dangerous if it is left lurking below the surface”, and proceeded to encourage non-racist white people to take a take a firmer stand against racism.

However, in an op-ed for The Conversation, Roger Southall, professor of Sociology at the University of Witwatersrand, stated the following: “There’s nothing wrong with [Carstens’ suggestion] at all. Indeed, its sentiment is highly commendable. But, would it really be better if racists displayed their honesty by roundly abusing black people? Or is it better if they curb their lips for fear of joining Momberg in jail?”

But the point still stands: a racist that hasn’t been exposed publicly is still a racist, so can the law change people for the better?

LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director, Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, thinks that new legislation might not have an immediate effect, but could, in the long run, play a significant role in changing mind-sets.  She goes to say that in true democracies, the law reflects what is right for the greater good of society, even if some factions don’t see it from the get-go.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the power legislation can have in making positive change in society.  If people start interrogating why specific language or behaviour is punishable by law, they may eventually pass that change of perspective down to future generations instead of perpetuating a specific cycle,” says Nagtegaal.

For now, it is difficult to determine whether stricter laws will change racist South Africans and the many structures that enable them to continue to be racist, but the Prevention of Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill is certainly a step in the right direction.

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