In America, the shooting of Trayvon Martin sparked a national debate about race. In South Africa, a less serious incident has caused an equally divisive discussion: on May 4, Jessica Leandra dos Santos, a white South African model, tweeted: “Just … took on an arrogant and disrespectful kaffir inside Spar. Should have punched him.”
Kaffir is a highly offensive South African term for black Africans, comparable to the American slur “n*****.” Leandra, who has modeled for FHM, later deleted the tweet and published an apology on her blog, saying that the man in question had sexually harassed her.
A Twitter flame war
But the damage had already been done. Leandra soon found herself at the center of a Twitter flame war, as angry South Africans publicly chastised her racism.
One of the most controversial responses came from Tshidi Thamana (@Tshidi_Thamana), an aspiring actress. Making a reference to a hero of the African National Congress and a protest song he popularized, Thamana tweeted: “Dear Mr. Peter Mokaba…I wish all White People were killed when you sang ‘Kill the Boer’ we wouldn’t be experiencing @JessicaLeandra’s racism right now.” Her call to violence was extreme but not unusual, so bitter was the discourse on Twitter. Even the African-American rapper Talib Kweli got in on the action, according to reports in the South African press.
Leandra soon found herself disowned by FHM, which revoked her victory in its FHM Modelbook 2011 competition, and has already lost at least one major sponsor. But Mmusi Maimane, a spokesperson for the opposition Democratic Alliance party, reached out to Leandra and Thamana, inviting both women to a breakfast “summit,” much like President Barack Obama’s “beer summit” nearly three years ago.
In an article entitled “Simply Condemning Racism Is Only Half the Battle,” Maimane wrote: “My experience with Jessica and Tshidi has convinced me that face-to-face interaction is the most powerful way to promote reconciliation. I hope that one day we can celebrate our diversity instead of being divided by it.”
Racial harmony proves elusive
South Africa ended its system of apartheid 18 years ago but racial harmony has proved an elusive goal. Social media, which has united so many people across the world, has proved particularly problematic here. Last week, a white university student was suspended for using derogatory language about black people on his personal Facebook account. And many South Africans were scandalized by the recent comments of former President F.W. de Klerk, after the Nobel laureate seemed to suggest that apartheid might have worked if implemented properly.
But, as hateful as racism is, are South Africans missing an even more important issue? In a Daily Maverick column, the radio journalist Mandy Wiener suggests that while her nation is busy obsessing over Leandra’s racist tweet it is missing the blatant political corruption that condemns so many of its citizens to poverty and injustice.
Her article runs parallel to a similar argument in the United States: though racism is still a part of our culture and likely played a role in Trayvon’s death, are we missing a chance to question the unchecked proliferation of handguns in our streets? In other words, would Trayvon still be alive today if not for “Stand Your Ground” laws and the general emasculation of gun control?