How South Africa's social media became the new racial battleground

Judge Mabel Jansen's suggestion that black South Africans condone rape has sparked an outcry.

Story highlights

  • Judge suggests that black South Africans condone rape
  • Judge says her comments were taken out of context

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN)For a country dubbed the "Rainbow Nation" for its ability to move beyond its apartheid past, South Africa's social media these days looks like a racial battleground.

Almost every other week a new racism row erupts. I see it on my Twitter feed, read about it in bold headlines in the morning papers, and hear it on talk radio while driving my car.
    This week the focus is on a white high court judge.
    In a Facebook conversation between Judge Mabel Jansen and activist Gillian Schutte last year, the judge apparently suggested that black South Africans condone rape -- writing that gang rapes of a "baby, daughter and mother" are viewed as a "pleasurable past time."
    The discussion was made public this week, sparking heated responses on social media, becoming a trending topic in South Africa on Twitter and the dominant conversation in the country.
    In a post on Twitter, Jansen wrote: "What I stated confidentially to somebody in a position to help has been taken completely out of context and referred to specific court cases."
    CNN attempted to reach out to Jansen, but did not get a response.
    Local media reports that Jansen's husband died on Saturday, and she has now gone to ground. The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) has recommended she be placed on leave during an investigation.
    In an interview with Jansen in 2013, released by the JSC, the judge burnished her transformation credentials and said that her father -- also a judge -- had stood up for Nelson Mandela in court.
    In the Facebook discussion, Jansen said her comments were based on a "veritable tsunami of rape cases."
    South Africa does have horrific rape statistics. But many see the comments as unfairly singling out black South Africans.
    In a country where memories of the dehumanizing effects of apartheid are still strong, the comments are deeply offensive to many.
    Redi Thlabi, a popular radio talk-show host who frequently conducts robust discussion on race and racism, wrote that she was "haunted" by the judge's assertion that "mothers are so brainwashed that they tellus, their daughters, it is correct for father to be the first."
    Well-known author Eusebius McKaiser summed up the sentiments of many online when he tweeted: "The two most feeble defenses of racism must be 'It wasn't my intention!'& 'I'm taken out of context!'"
    Judge Jansen's comments are just the latest to come under fire. In January, an estate agent named Penny Sparrow called black beach-goers "monkeys" and had her membership of the opposition Democratic Alliance political party suspended.
    In March, an economist from Standard Bank resigned after tweeting: "More than 25 years after Apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities." The economist apologized that the tweet had caused offense and that it wasn't his intention.
    Recently, a black student activist recounted on Facebook how they refused to tip a white waitress in Cape Town and on the bill wrote, "we will give you a tip when you return our land."
    "She sees the note and starts shaking. She leaves us and bursts into typical white tears," wrote Ntokozo Qwabe, currently a student at Oxford.
    Again, Twitter caught fire, with some criticizing the student, some defending him, and others raising money for the waitress.
    This hugely public naming and shaming is something new. Over the past two decades, I have spent long stretches outside of the country. And in many ways, the country is unrecognizable and great strides have been made in shaping a democratic nation.
    But over the years, I have witnessed both the small and large indignities black South Africans endure, and the "casual" racism that seems reserved for social gatherings amongst some South Africans.
    But the social media age means nothing is private -- or very little.
    And something else has changed.
    South Africa's democracy and constitution was made possible, in large part, by the ruling ANC's commitment to non-racialism and Nelson Mandela's powerful message of reconciliation.
    When Mandela died in late 2013, I rushed to the country to report on the massive outpouring of love and respect throughout South Africa.
    It was both the loss of an icon almost universally loved, but also a significant marker in the public discussion on race and reconciliation.
    Black writers and intellectuals say far more needs to be done by white South Africans to acknowledge the past.
    The writer and activist Sisonke Msimang has called it "the end of the rainbow nation myth" in the New York Times. "Democracy has taught us that raised voices don't have to lead to war," she writes.
    But given the traumatic history of this country, perhaps it is time these voices are heard.