The Royal Hotel incident – was it racism?

News Desk

The iconic Royal Hotel in Pilgrim’s Rest became the centre of a media storm after an incident, in which it was accused of racism, went viral on social media.

The incident happened in the restaurant on January 1 after which comment, an image of the bill on which the word “Blacks” was printed and a video of a discussion between the patrons and the duty manager was posted on social media.  The post rapidly went viral and by January 3 the incident had been picked up by the national media with headlines such as “Racism at the Royal Hotel” and “Racism rears its ugly head in Pilgrim’s Rest while hotel apologises”.

The post was widely shared on social media and fuel was added to the fire by wide-ranging comments from persons representing the full spectrum of South African society.  It was thought-provoking that the comments were often based on pre-conceived assumptions and perceptions – for example, that the waiter involved was white and that the hotel was white-owned, or even that because the bill was marked “blacks” the patrons would have received inferior food or service.

It appears that the truth around the incident was that waitrons were free to label their tables on the system in any way that works best for them.  It was extremely busy on the day and the waiter in question, who was himself black, opted for the “blacks” label as he ran out of those he usually uses. In this respect, the waiter has accepted full responsibility.  In the heat of the moment, apparently, to try and defuse a potentially awkward situation, the duty manager responded to the patrons’ question of why “blacks” appeared on their bill that tables were colour coded.  The patrons later realised that this was in fact not the case.  In the internal investigation, he also accepted full responsibility for his error.

The Royal Hotel issued a media statement in which it apologised for the incident and confirmed that it had a clear policy of non-discrimination on the basis of race, creed, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age or marital status.  The Hotel is owned by the government and falls under the Mpumalanga Department of Public Works, Roads and Transport. At this Department’s request, it has been operated by the Mpumalanga Regional Training Trust since 2012. Out of 67 permanent employees, only two are white and it is currently the largest employer in Pilgrim’s Rest.  The Hotel’s labour and social development activities include weekly food donations to the local drop-in centre for vulnerable children, facilitating bookings for performances by a local gumboot troupe, as well as sending employees on courses for skills development.

In the light of the above, one can ask the following questions: Was racism at the root of the January 1 incident? Does identifying or describing someone by referring to their race constitute racism?

Have we South Africans become too hasty in labelling social incidents as racist? How often are we led by our own beliefs and prejudices, rather than searching for the truth?

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