English

Ending Discrimination No Easy Task

Jun 25 2004

By Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, June 25 (IPS) – A devout Muslim with beard, flowing gown and prayer cap folded his arms as a female participant reached out to shake his hand. They ended up exchanging verbal greetings.

On the opposite side of the hall, a man suggested a dress code for young women, drawing the ire of feminists. Welcome to South Africa’s conference on ‘The Eradication of Unfair Discrimination through Access to Equality Courts’, held in the commercial capital of Johannesburg this week (Jun. 24-25).

Since June 2003, 220 equality courts have been established to eliminate
the racism that took root in South Africa during the colonial and apartheid
eras – as well as other forms of discrimination that can flourish in a
culturally diverse society.

“We must change the mindset of our people,” Johnny de Lange, Deputy
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, told participants of the
conference, which was organised by the South African Human Rights
Commission.

“Equal opportunity alone is not enough to address the apartheid-inflicted
legacy,” he added.

More than 70 cases have already been heard by these tribunals, including
31 complaints of racial discrimination, 23 of hate speech, 17 of sexual
harassment and four of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
About 800 judges and magistrates have been trained to deal with issues
pertaining to equality.

At the Johannesburg meeting, whites rubbed shoulders with black, indian
and mixed race South Africans in a way that would have been impossible in
the past. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the demise of apartheid,
the country’s notorious system of legalized racial segregation.

But despite government’s efforts, South Africa remains a polarised
society. Sampie Terreblance, an academic from the University of Stellenbosch
near Cape Town, said poverty had fuelled discrimination and tension in the
country.

According to a 2003 United Nations Development Programme report, he
added, five million South Africans – including 70,000 whites – lived on less
than a dollar a day. The country’s unemployment rate also rose from 34
percent in 1994 to around 40 percent in 2003, says the Confederation of
South African Trade Unions.

“This shows how engrained social disparity in our society is,”
Terreblance observed, adding that it was essential for government to
increase assistance to the poor.

“I think the poor should be given 100 rand (about 15 dollars) each a
month in the form of a social grant. This will go a long way in addressing
some of their basic needs like food,” he told IPS on Thursday, Jun. 24.

De Lange urged South Africans to report cases of discrimination to the
equality courts, and he was at pains to point out that these tribunals have
a wide brief. “Debate should not only be around racial inequality, but
should also touch on other equally important issues like gender and the
rights of the disabled,” he said.

But while discrimination under apartheid was clear cut, it has been less
easy to rule on prejudice in later instances.

A case in point concerned a headline-grabbing incident in 2002, in which
supporters of the ruling African National Congress chanted the slogan “Kill
the boer, kill the farmer,” during two public meetings. The word “boer”,
meaning farmer, is often used to refer to Afrikaans-speaking whites in South
Africa.

The opposition Freedom Front, which represents the interests of certain
Afrikaners, said the slogan constituted hate speech, and that it had
resulted in the murder of Afrikaans farmers. However, the Human Rights
Commission chose to view it simply as criticism of another racial group.

Perhaps anticipating that the emotive issues under discussion at the
conference might prompt similar exchanges, the chair of the meeting issued
an appeal at the start of discussions for participants to avoid inflammatory
language.

He need not have worried, however. Although tempers occasionally flared,
everything proceeded in an orderly and civilised manner – and the atmosphere
remained cordial.

The equality courts were created under the Promotion of Equality and
Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Amendment Act.

Section 13 of the act has sparked controversy, as it shifts the burden of
proof in certain instances. In these cases, it is not up to the accuser to
prove someone guilty of discrimination; rather the respondent must prove his
or her innocence. (END/IPS/
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