Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Let's err on the side of giving FBJ the space to mobilise

I usually agree with Jody Kollapen, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission; he usually has a particularly good take on the SA set up. And his articulation of issues often promotes deeper understanding of the aspects involved.

But I differ with his finding on whether the Forum of Black Journalists has a right to organize on the basis of black solidarity.

Kollapen was today reporting back on an investigation into this matter following a complaint by white journalists at Radio 702 regarding a “blacks only” FBJ launch event held recently. Kollapen reported that the HRC saw no problem with limiting attendance at an event to members only. It took issue, more fundamentally, with the (blacks only) membership policy of the FBJ. Such a policy position was unconstitutional, Kollapen argued.

The HRC findings are technically correct and well argued. The findings are also strongly consistent with the “ideal” – and with the desired end state of positive social engagement and interaction in South Africa.

But the findings overlook the following:
• The fact that SA is in transition and that, in key areas, that transition is painfully slow, as Kollapen himself argued recently.
• The historical context, including the fact that in the past there was general acceptance and respect for the decision of certain liberation organizations to use racial exclusion in their membership policies.
• That the Constitution emphases socio-economic rights and dignity as much as it does non-racialism; are we also prepared to declare policies that promote inequality, such as privatization of the provision of basic services, “unconstitutional”?
• That black and white people rarely come together in common forums to forge common objectives, often seem ignorant of the fact they are working towards the same objectives; rarely engage each other in open debate to debunk/challenge assumptions, stereotypes and preconceptions.
• That, in this context, many may feel that the best way to focus energies advance objectives is to unite those who are affected in the same way about an issue.
• The implications of the finding for women’s organizations; there are many instances where – even though the HRC may interpret the country’s Constitution in the same way for them – women may feel they can marshal their energies better if they do not have to deal with the dynamics unleashed by the participation of men.

The findings are thus hard-edged (at a time when we are just starting to open the space for debate on “race”) and bordering on the coercive (in a situation where strong pointers, recommendations and a developmental finding might work better). We cannot get non-racial practice by decree – not when social cohesion and inter-group interaction remains severely limited (and certainly not while there is such a paucity of interventions to promote anti-racism, discussion of race in society and social cohesion).

I believe that - especially if the ultimate aims are outcomes like non-racialism and justice - people should as far as possible/reasonable, be permitted to organize in ways that are relevant for them.

I can see what the HRC wants to do: it wants to drive the society towards non-racialism. I can see the implications for its ruling for political and non-political organisations, clubs that would want to exclude people simply on the basis of race. But, with an eye to the historical development of political organisations of the disadvantaged and given the imperatives of free expression and association, I believe there should be a sunset provision. I believe that organisations - including particularly those bodies whose target group is people who have been specifically affected by oppressive racial legislation - should be given a period of, say, a year to 18 months to make the required changes to membership policy. Such a period of transition should run from case by case complaints or - provided the HRC rolls out a general public engagement and information-dissemination process beforehand - a general HRC ruling or pronouncement.

That is my contradictory position: I say Jody has got it wrong; at the same time, I laud him as a leader and a key thinker on issues of justice.

Do you agree with my views as expressed here? Please feel free to post your reply.

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