Social media was ablaze with angry users on Monday night, with the news that rugby legend Joost Van Der Westhuizen had died, but this wasn’t what had South Africans fuming.
Hours after the announcement that Joost had passed away, a meme depicting Spiderman actor Toby Maguire rolling his eyes, emerged. It read, “When I hear a white man has died. RIP Joost”. The caption by the sharer, Riaan Lucas, read “Joost is vrek”.
The post went viral almost immediately.
Those tagged, Ling Sheperd and Denver Lopez, were also lambasted by the public. The three have been called racist and disrespectful, but Lopez says that that wasn’t the intention for the badly received post.
Lopez says that the post was meant light-heartedly, even though he admits it was distasteful.
He also says that he didn’t think that it would ‘blow up’ the way it did, with thousands of shares and comments happening within hours of its emergence online.
The country responded in anger.
The trio laid low as journalists and political parties, as well as social justice organisations searched for them. Soon, their real names and addresses, as well as their pictures were all over the news.
The three have now said that they have started to receive death threats.
People are contacting them on their private contact numbers, which as far as they were concerned, were not public knowledge.
Lopez says that in a democracy, freedom of speech is important.
Denver Lopez spoke to SABN about why exactly the meme was posted.
He said it started out without malicious intent, and it was more a statement on the “escalation of what Joost’s death became. This whole media uproar and collective sympathy, you know, about this one white man who passed away, and what frustrates me and a lot of other people is that we don’t get that response when our men and women on the Cape Flats are murdered”.
He says that “people don’t even know how many people have been killed on the Cape Flats, you know? It really just becomes another number, another statistic. Does one life really matter more? Does it matter more because he was white, because he was a male, because he was a famous rugby player?”
“I think that was really what I wanted to say, and we have a media that makes it look like white people don’t die, these people are sort of invincible”.
He says that white people are cushioned by 500 years of colonial privilege, and because they have better healthcare, better food and better opportunities, they have the upper hand in life, and this has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many non-whites, who are still stuck in extreme poverty.
“Maybe that’s why they not dying, because of that inherited privilege”.
Lopez says that he is a Khoisan activist, and that the land that was taken from his ancestors was taken brutally.
“Part of me is very frustrated that there has been this backlash that people want to silence us. If I know the history that when the Khoisan opposed the colonial force, we were beaten up, we were murdered, our tongues were taken out”.
Lopez, and the group are not alone in their feelings towards the ‘unfair’ reaction by the public to what many are calling ‘just a meme’.
“The threats we getting now, we hearing that these people wanna moer us, till the skin falls from our faces, they wanna skop me in my P, and I think I am sterk bek on Facebook”.
The group has even received threats of violence against their families.
Some people have said that they want to burn down the homes of the three.
“Yes, the meme could have been more tasteful.. it seemed like it was really very insensitive, and that I can acknowledge, you know, that it was a sensitive time for a lot of people.”
“It was a sensitive time for a lot of people who idolised Joost, but I as a Khoisan descendant, as a person of colour, as a person living on the Cape Flats, that is not my prerogative, it is not for me to wanna be forced into feeling something for this white man, and nobody should make me feel like I should feel like we have lost something, cos we lose so much every day, and how many of these people can really say that they have seen 18-year olds’ lifeless bodies, blood streaming out of their bodies on the tar roads, mothers having to cry for their kids”.
“I get up in the morning, I sit in the taxi, I wonder am I gonna be hit by a bullet? and these are the realities.”
Lopez says that people of colour live in circumstances where they question their safety, so they have been desensitized to death.
“We have become immune, and this is our problem”.
When asked, “Are you a racist?”, Lopez responded; “the foundation of racism is a sense of superiority. I am a Khoisan, I am an African, and we believe in equality, we believe that humans are equal”.
“I wouldn’t say I am racist towards white people, I would say I am frustrated”.
[Listen to the whole interview here]
Ling Sheperd also said that she had received death threats from several individuals, and has opted to deactivate her social media accounts.
“All of Riaan’s ex-employers were contacted. I am more worried about safety. Me, Riaan and Denver never rubbed people up the right way, but anything you say online, when people don’t know you, it will get misconstrued”.
“People will shame to no end. Internet gangsterism works that way. Yesterday was Alex van Tonder, today Riaan, tomorrow maybe someone else.”
“We don’t believe the post to be racist”.
Riaan Lucas has been advised by his legal aid to not make any comments. SABN is in talks with Riaan about a future interview.