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Pride and prejudice

in SOUTH AFRICA, 11/10/2012

We often believe that sufferers of prejudice cannot be culprits of it, but by now a good number of people will have seen the disturbing video from the Joburg Pride festival circulating on the internet.

The video shows activists from the 1 in 9 Campaign disrupting the Pride parade on Saturday, demanding that the participants observe a minute of silence to remember lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims of crime.

In the video we see the activists, and life-size dummies, lying in Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, blocking the approaching parade. The narrator alleges that Pride committee members threatened to drive cars over the activists.

But the most disturbing and telling statement uttered in the clip is "Go back to the township", said by an organiser of the festival.

One can understand the anger of the Pride committee. According to its Twitter account, @RealJoburg Pride, the action by 1 in 9 was illegal in terms of bylaws and could have put the event at risk. The anger might explain expletives, and at a stretch even violence, in response to the 1 in 9 protest, but it doesn't explain the utterance that speaks to class inferiority.

Maybe I'm being sensitive, but experience has taught me that when someone tells you to go back to the township, it's rarely because they know you happen to live there.

This country has a love-hate relationship with townships and their complicated history. We can move a few rugby games to townships, host a tour or two there, we can run in broad daylight through one, and even shoot an international music video there, but make no mistake, the townships serve the same purpose today that they were created for by the Group Areas Act: to house black people.

When someone tells you to "go back to the township", we are all very much still on that same page. Black people still belong in the township.

Equally disturbing were the black participants in Pride who walked right past the 1 in 9 activists while they lay on the ground.

This led some to question whether the response was racist because it was done without any objection from black people present. But many of us know that people can let racism slide when they are outnumbered, or when it is inflicted on people poorer than themselves.

As class discrimination roots itself ever deeper in our society, we are becoming more comfortable with conditional rights based on economic standing (among other types of discrimination), and with the widening income gap.

To put it bluntly, cries of racism are much louder when the victims are middle-class black people, and they are more likely to be taken seriously.

True social transformation requires society to be better equipped to address multidimensional discrimination. This does not imply that all dimensions of discrimination be parcelled together for convenience, but rather that we better address the cumulative effects of different types of prejudice on any individual.

It certainly means we can't ignore a situation of blatant discrimination just because it happens not to be our turn on that particular day. If the middle class is allowed to be a cocoon of sorts from prejudice, the racism will persist, aggravated by a new social contract in higher income classes that says "racism is okay as long as you don't do it to me".

Few would differ with the conclusion that the 1 in 9 campaigners handled the entire affair badly. They should have approached the organising committee of the Joburg Pride event, especially given the importance of the message they wanted communicated.

Their ill-conceived "protest within a protest" does not, however, justify the treatment they received.

Joburg Pride committee members will probably be asked to apologise, but an apology for assault is not enough. The consequences for discrimination need to be severe.

But the real tragedy of this situation is just how easily some black people let it slide and simply walked on by.

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