Good people can be racist and jump to wrong conclusions

It was one of those weeks when there was a lot going on locally. Mandla Langa’s completion of the second biography of Nelson Mandela was launched in Johannesburg, Sisonke Msimang launched her biography in Cape Town, the District Six Museum hosted a storytelling session in Langa, and we commemorated the 40th anniversary of Black Wednesday, 19 October 1977, when the government banned several newspapers and organisations, and banned and/or detained many journalists. Their crime was to oppose apartheid.

We even managed to see Shakespeare in Love at the Fugard Theatre, which provided some respite from what turned out to be an otherwise heavy news week. We cannot overlook the conflicts that are going on in many parts of the world, and the constant reshuffling of his executive by our President who appears to have itchy feet or fingers or both.

I have given up trying to speculate about what is going on in the mind of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. All I know is that he manages to catch his opponents off guard a lot of the time, indicating what a master strategist he is. I am not saying he is a good man or even a good politician, but I am saying that he is clever and should not be underestimated. He has shown that over and over.

But the story that grabbed most of my attention is one involving a goat and a few other animals.

The story of a seven-year-old’s birthday party in a Woodstock park which was assumed by a white resident to be a ritual animal slaughter – or worse – indicates how far we still have to go as residents of Cape Town and South Africa in order to even begin to understand each other.

Much has been written about this story, including the eventual and inevitable apology, and there are some people who probably believe that we should move on now – just like they believe we should move on from apartheid which ended more than 23 years ago.

The unfortunate thing is that while legalised apartheid and discrimination might be a thing of the past, it is much more difficult to rid our psyche of the apartheid mentality and of the almost inherent need to discriminate.

I have no doubt that Megan Furniss considers herself a good person. From her Facebook profile, I gather that she is a vegan who loves animals. She even has a blog where she talks about a lot of societal issues and she is involved in the theatre industry. From my contacts in the industry, she appears to have done several interesting things in theatre.

But even good people have flaws. Even good people can be racist. Even good people can discriminate. Even good people can be Islamophobic. Even good people can jump to wrong conclusions.

In the apartheid days, I often thought about the mindset of members of the security police who used to hunt down, detain and beat up anti-apartheid activists during the day and go home to have dinner with their families at night. They probably even read their children bedtime stories. They probably loved their families and saw the work they did in upholding apartheid as a job which had to be done.

It is not easy to be good, at least not all the time, and most people have lapses from time to time. It is how you respond to those lapses that can set you apart from others.

I try to be good. I have humanitarian values, I oppose violence and I do not believe in the death penalty. But I know that if anyone hurt any of my daughters, my views might change and my behaviour might change.

But I digress.

The problem with what happened in the park in Woodstock over the weekend shows that many Capetonians, and probably South Africans, are still intolerant to those who might appear to be different from them. It is easy to assume all the bad stereotypes when you see a group of people who might appear to have a lot in common, but just not with you.

In the era of social media, it is easy to express your uneasiness when confronted with a situation involving people who appear to be different to you. And it is just as easy to regret your views.

Should we move on so quickly and easily from what happened in the Woodstock park? I don’t think so. I believe we should learn lessons from all unfortunate incidents. The main lesson here is not to make assumptions and not to express your assumptions in public without verifying what was really going on. A subsidiary lesson is that we are very far from being the “Rainbow nation” we sometimes pretend to be.

Imagine if Furniss had gone to speak to the family involved and learnt what they were really doing, her initial post might have been completely different and probably very positive. It would probably not had received the social media traction it did.

I have always said that ignorance is to blame for many of our problems. Ignorance can often lead to intolerance, intolerance can sometimes lead to hatred, and there is no limit to what can result from hatred.

I suggest that Furniss, apart from apologising via social media, should look up the family she offended and learn a little bit (or a lot) about their cultures and traditions. It might end up making her a truly good person. The only way to deal with ignorance is to actively learn about each other.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 21 October 2017)