Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
11 March 2010

On hate speech and a phone call from prison

I have new respect for ANC spokesperson, Jackson Mthembu, who was arrested on Thursday morning around 7 am for drunken driving in Cape Town but apparently gave a 21-minute telephonic interview to the South African Press Association (SAPA) – while in police custody – 90 minutes later. Now that is what I call a work ethic worth emulating.

During the interview Mr Mthembu passionately defended ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema for singing “shoot the boers, they are rapists” – before bursting into song himself. At this stage it is unclear whether Mthembu was really drunk at 7 in the morning and if he was, whether he had been partying the whole night or had started drinking very early in the morning.

Although I cannot claim that I have never been drunk at 7 am in the morning, I can confirm that I have never been arrested for drunken driving and I have definitely never given a media interview from a prison cell while allegedly under the influence of liquor. Respect bru!

Sadly, the said interview was not his best work as ANC spokesperson. Whether he slipped up because he was drunk or because he was in prison and did not have the Internet handy, is unclear. Malema obviously attacked Zille (she is apparently a Satanist) and De Lille (she is apparently not a fit wife) and sang the “kill a boer” song to detract attention from the fact that Julius has not been paying his taxes and has been lying about his business interests.

The media fell for this ploy hook, line and sinker. Malema is a genius at manipulating the media – a bit like Hitler, but without the mustache and without the scary uniforms and the homoerotic military parades. (Relax, I am not saying Malema is as evil as Hitler – just that he is very good at getting the media to play to his tune.)

Back to Mthembu, who explained to SAPA (while he was either sober or drunk, but definitely in police custody) that the “kill a boer” song did not constitute hate speech as it was an old struggle song:

This song was sung for many years even before Malema was born … Julius doesn’t even know who’s the writer of the song. He got it from us [the ANC]. You must blame the ANC, don’t blame Julius. But when you blame the ANC, then contextualise it.

The problem is that in 2003 the Human Rights Commission Appeal Committee found that chanting the “kill the boer, kill a farmer” did constitute hate speech. In an opinion written by Prof Karthy Govender, the appeal body, relying on the much narrower definition of hate speech in section 16(2) of the Constitution and not on the more expansive definition in section 10 of the Equality Act, rejected the line of reasoning offered by Mthembu from his prison cell.

The liberation effort, including the armed struggle, was directed against the policy of apartheid and against its supporters. One of the slogans used to mobilize people against Apartheid was ‘’Kill the Boer, Kill the farmer’’. It was a rallying call to resistance, defiance and acts of violence in furtherance of the objectives of defeating apartheid. In effect, it called for the ultimate harm to be visited upon persons deemed to be the enemy. It was a slogan created for a particular time and in a particular context. It reflected the intensity of the race based conflict that was raging in South Africa at the time….

There can be no doubt that the slogan, given its content, its history and the context in which it was chanted, would harm the sense of well being, contribute directly to a feeling of marginalisation, and adversely affect the dignity of Afrikaners. The slogan says to them that they are still the enemy of the majority of the people of this country. It contributes to the alienation of the target community and conveys a particularly divisive message to the majority community that the target community is less deserving of respect and dignity. This generalized slogan is directed against an entire community of people. Words convey meaning and do cause hurt and injury. There is a real likelihood that this slogan causes harm.

As apartheid had ended and the political situation had normalized it was not acceptable anymore to say “kill the boer” and if one does it constitutes hate speech on the basis of race.

I would therefore be surprised if an Equality Court, relying on the far wider definition of hate speech in the Equality Act, does not find Julius guilty of hate speech. Of course, it is not clear that the provision in the Equality Act is constitutional as it infringes on the right to freedom of expression and is far wider than the exclusion carved out by section 16(2) of the Constitution. It may be saved by the limitation clause but I am nots ure it will.

If I was Malema’s lawyer I would challenge the constitutionality of the relevant provision of the Act to try and escape responsibility and to appear to be a champion of the Constitution. That would be brilliant public relations and may even teach the media and ordinary South Africans a thing or two about freedom of expression. 

However, if the Equality Court finds Julius guilty of hate speech it has wide powers to impose the appropriate punishment. It could order Julius to pay an amount of money to Solidarity or the Freedom Front (or maybe to donate his watch to one of these organisations?), or to apologise to white South Africans, or to do community service in Orania.

As for Mr Mthembu, I hope the ANC does not fire him. We all make mistakes, but few of us would show his dedication in getting our message – no matter how misguided – out there. If he was drunk as alleged, he should plead guilty and apologise to the ANC and the nation. Then he could continue to act as spokesperson for the ANC, which would allow all of us to snigger at him and make fun of his dedication to the cause of spin-doctoring. As the add says, that would be priceless.

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