At the very least, the Judge’s sally into the social media minefield with such ill-considered comments showed a lack of judgment – presumably a key requirement for her job. It was also injudicious to choose activist Gillian Schutte as the recipient of her sociological ruminations. Spurred on by political rectitude, Schutte broke the story a year after she had received the messages, as fate would have it, on the day that Jansen’s husband died behind the wheel of his car in England.

The vehement response of black South Africans, politicians, the media, the legal profession and political parties to Jansen’s comments is quite understandable – particularly in the current emotionally volatile climate of race relations. The wheels of justice have responded with exemplary speed: Jansen has been suspended and now faces the prospect of losing her position as a judge.

The great pity is that the vehemence of the response to Jansen’s remarks has distracted attention from the shocking reality that South Africa has by far the highest rape rate in the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) there were 132/100 000 rapes in South Africa in 2010. This is six times the rate in the United States; 65 times the rate in Uganda; and more than 270 times the rate in India. The actual number of rapes in South Africa may be much worse, given that only a fraction of rapes are ever reported to the police.

So, there is undoubtedly a culture of rape in South Africa – but not one that is linked to any specific community. The 2010 study provides some disturbing insights into what lies behind this culture. The main factor was the rapists’ sense of sexual entitlement. Others saw rape as an expression of anger, or as a means of punishing women. For still others, it arose from boredom or excessive drinking.

One of the most shocking aspects of the 2010 MRC survey was the insight that it provided into the desperate living conditions of the sample of men between the ages of 18 and 49 who were questioned – and who are broadly representative of the South African population:

Surely, the devastating impact of rape on so many of our women and the unacceptable conditions in which so many South Africans still subsist should be the focus of our attention and the objects of our anger?

Unfortunately, the overheated debate on race is drowning out the consideration that we should be giving to the serious challenges that confront South Africa – including the need for a rational debate on racism itself. As the debate becomes more heated – it also becomes more intolerant and one-directional.

There seems to be an assumption that racism comes overwhelmingly from whites. The behaviour, several years ago, of a senior judge who called a lawyer a “piece of white s….” in front of witnesses is swept under the judicial carpet. Routine attacks on whites as “colonialists” or as “thieves who stole our land” are ignored – or even applauded. Little attention is paid to protesting students wearing t-shirts and carrying placards calling for whites to be killed. Posts in social media calling for violence against whites are excused as manifestations of the powerlessness and frustration of those involved.

But what happens when anti-racist protestations are themselves racially selective and become a weapon in the increasingly polarised racial debate?

One of the consequences is a tendency to close down debate on many of the problems that confront us. ANC MPs are considering legislation to punish racism and those who “glorify apartheid”. Such legislation might be used to shut down any discussion about the past that does not accord with the ANC version of history – i.e. that everything that happened before 1994 – and all those involved – were uniformly evil – while all those on the side of the struggle were all noble and virtuous.

Indeed, we are approaching the point where any criticism of the government might be regarded as “racism”. In her speech to Parliament on 6 May, the Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi, complained about the poor performance of the print media. Despite her Department’s best efforts to share the “insightful content” of cabinet statements, presidential engagements and national achievements, the media chose perversely to “paint this government as corrupt, hapless and inept.”  The only possible explanation she could find for this aberrant behaviour was that “racist tendencies” were playing a role in “unrelenting(ly) stigmatising a black government.”

We should not allow understandable anger about the racist remarks of a few bigoted individuals from all races to drown out the need for a rational national debate on the problems that confront us. These problems include rape, the conditions in which we live, the past, the performance of the government, the freedom of expression, state capture – and the sensitive issue of racism itself.

Judge Jansen would do well to ponder the words of Omar Khayyam: “The moving finger writes (in this case on the computer keyboard) and having writ moves on, nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.” Her only consolation is perhaps the fact that her legally adopted black daughter, Lulu Qulu (28), has been “deeply hurt by the rude words snarled at her” – and that she does not think that her mom is a racist.

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation