Today, when k-word video maker Adam Catzavelos poured out his televised apology to South Africa outside court, he claimed his joy last year at the absence of “k**firs” on a beach in Greece had been a “moment of madness”.
Here’s his full apology in case you missed it: “In my moment of madness I had last year, I’m completely embarrassed and utterly ashamed at what I did and what I said and I express my sympathy and sorrow to anyone I upset or whose dignity I harmed. I had no intention of doing any of that and I’m here to face my consequences, and I’m really sorry about any harm that I may have caused anyone.”
My opinion on this is hardly original or even interesting, but it appears to be something that still needs to be said. Because even though Catzavelos has had a lot of time to think about his apology and how he might phrase it, he still somehow thought he could get away with his “moment of madness” excuse.
Being a racist is not something that strikes in a “moment”. It’s not like catching your wife in bed with the plumber. If you happen to kill them both, you’ll still be prosecuted, but the law takes such true “moments of madness” (or just getting really mad) into account when deciding on an appropriate sentence.
It’s true that a moment of anger, frustration, unguardedness or simple stupidity could cause you to say or do a racist thing, but you wouldn’t be capable of it if it wasn’t inside you to begin with. Obviously.
Being a racist builds up over the course of your life. It’s a reflection of your personality, character, upbringing, education, the exposure you’ve had to people who are not the same as you, your choice of friends, peer group, the things you read, movies you watch, and maybe even your work. The list can go on. What goes into making someone a racist is complicated, but what we do know for sure is that South Africa has produced individuals on either extreme of the divide between our hateful demons and the better angels of our nature.
And children from the same households have gone either way.
We have produced some of the most violent, murderous, vitriolic racists the world has ever known. But we can also proudly boast a pantheon of the world’s greatest non-racialists, humanists, promoters of peace and respect for the individual. On both sides these people have come from every major racial group: black, white, Indian and coloured.
So to accept the idea that someone who went around on his holiday being happy that not a single “k**fir” was in sight was suddenly overwhelmed by a “moment of madness” means you’d then have to accept that the rest of the time they are normally quite accepting of groups and individuals that don’t fit their preferred creed, colour or world view.
And you’d have to be mad yourself to accept that.
There’s a now largely discredited theory that Hitler was “mad”, and that this “madness” contributed to his crimes against humanity. The more disquieting truth is that he wasn’t. He was rational in pursuing his aims, and he and his Third Reich cronies considered everything they did clearly and with logical intent.
They were evil, yes. But not insane. It’s far too easy and shallow to say, “Oh, they were mad.”
But I’m not comparing our dear Adam Catzavelos to some of the greatest mass murderers in history. That would be missing the point, which is, first of all, that to let him off the hook with a “temporary insanity defence” will not work on either the courtroom’s steps, or inside it.
And more importantly, we need to be willing to have the deeper discussion about what racism really is and how to overcome it.
Because it’s not madness. It’s just evil.