JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Two young models -- one white, the other black -- from a generation too young to have personal memories of apartheid, have exposed South Africa’s racist underbelly in recent days with a series of angry tweets.
The seemingly casual racist remarks by the models suggest that some members of South Africa’s “born free” generation, who entered the world after the end of apartheid, nonetheless may sport toxic attitudes.
On May 3, Jessica Leandra Dos Santos, a 20-year-old blond model who says her days “revolve around being kind,” sent a tweet that was anything but.
Using a highly offensive racial epithet, known in South Africa as the K-word, Dos Santos told more than 6,000 followers that she had just “taken on” an “arrogant and disrespectful” black man in a supermarket. “Should have punched him, should have,” her tweet ended.
By hitting send, she torpedoed her reputation, a valuable sponsorship and a modeling award that was handed to her last year by a men’s magazine.
Her excuse, in an apology published May 4, was that she was angry when she tweeted, claiming that the man in the supermarket had sexually harassed her.
“I tweeted rather irresponsibly last night about an incident I encountered last night, using a harsh and unkind word about the gentleman who had confronted me with sexual remarks and sounds…While most of you would probably enjoy the opportunity to throw a few vicious words at me, please do understand that I was acting in pure anger and frustration at the time and although we know this is no excuse, it is a lesson learnt and again I am sincerely apologetic.”
But her defense that racism was “not in my nature” was undermined by an earlier tweet about a confrontation with a black garage attendant.
“Highlight of my weekend? Almost punching an #Engen petrol assistant. No tolerance for rude African monkeys whatsoever,” the tweet read. (She has deleted both tweets, but not before they ricocheted amongst South Africa’s Twitterati.)
Then came Tshidi Thamana, a young black model and actress who tweeted in response to the white model’s tweets.
“Dear Mr Peter Mokaba,” she said, referring to a former leader of the African National Congress youth wing, “I wish All White People were killed when you sang ‘Kill the Boer’ we wouldn’t be experiencing Jessica Leandra’s racism now.” (Mokaba popularized the song, “Shoot the Boer,” a reference to white farmers.)
When many here quickly condemned her comment, she responded: “Dear everybody…why do people think that I’m a racist for saying being a racist is wrong? SMH (shaking my head)…Really Now!”
Thamana also apologized Sunday and also blamed her anger.
“Yes, racism is wrong and I apologize for the “kill all whites” tweet. It was tweeted in anger and yes, condemnation of each other is wrong.” Thamana then deleted her Twitter account.
Hate speech is illegal in South Africa, and the South African Human Rights Commission released a statement Monday that it was processing complaints against Dos Santos “and others” who had made racist remarks on social networks.
“Ms. Dos Santos’ alleged remarks contribute to a disturbing pattern that seems to be taking place in the social media space, and has to be addressed,” the commission said. “Although the Commission has noted Ms. Dos Santos’ subsequent apology, it is however of the view that her remarks have the potential to undermine social relations and may potentially also violate the provisions of the Constitution and the Equality Act.”
Popular blogger and tweeter Sipho Hlongwane said Dos Santos’ outburst obliterated the theory that young South Africans are unencumbered by the prejudice and hatred of their forebears.
“Sorry but where does a 20-year-old blonde girl learn to use that kind of language, to the extent that she thinks it’s okay to say it in a public forum, and then react with surprise at the uproar? I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it’s a word and sentiment bandied about easily in the environment in which she grew up. To her, the consideration that this might be enormously offensive to the majority of her fellow citizens never crossed her mind,” he wrote in a column published on the Daily Maverick news website.
Mail and Guardian columnist Sarah Britten wrote that every time someone in South Africa behaves like the two models, “the entire premise of post-apartheid South Africa goes on trial.
“What’s obvious from the case of Jessica and Tshidi is that South Africans are in desperate need of anger management. We seem incapable of resolving conflict without resorting to racist generalizations. Somehow, if we see bad behavior, we immediately attribute it to race rather than a failure of character.”
Opposition politician Mmusi Maimane, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, wrote an open letter to the two models, saying that despite the apologies, the pair had dealt a severe blow to efforts by former President Nelson Mandela and others to promote reconciliation.
He called on them to do something meaningful to promote reconciliation and invited them to his home to talk over their problems.
“I believe you would do South Africa a great service if the two of you were to meet up and talk through your issues in person… But whatever you do, do something to get South Africa believing in itself again. Make a gesture that unites South Africans against racism.”
-- Robyn Dixon