Quote of the week

An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.

Plasket AJ
Victoria Park Ratepayers' Association v Greyvenouw CC and others (511/03) [2003] ZAECHC 19 (11 April 2003)
12 June 2008

On the Daily Voice and the “M” word

I am not in the habit of reading the Daily Voice tabloid published in Cape Town. It is not the screaming headlines, the picture of a bare-breasted woman on page three, the bad lay-out or the even worse writing that makes me avoid this publication. Nor is it, I would hope, any elitist or superior attitude on my side that stops me from reading this publication.

Fact is, it hardly contains any news worth reading about and I find it boring.

But yesterday I bought a copy of this newspaper (tagline: “ons skrik vir niks“) because of the 5 centimeter high front page headline reading: “MOFFIE HOOKER STEEKED ME”. The article continues on page 7 (headline “YOUR BUNNY OR YOUR LIFE”) and reports that one Zami Zulu had appeared in court on charges of robbery and fraud because it is alleged that he robbed an 80 year old man and stabbed him.

It is strange that this newspaper thinks it can get away with this kind of language. I do not think I am particularly prissy or precious, and I am not personally particularly offended by the use of the “M” word because I know it reflects badly on the person uttering it or deploying it – not on me. But newspapers have a constitutional responsibility not to encourage or perpetuate hatred or disgust of others – especially of minority groups. By using “moffie” in such a derogatory way, the newspaper is perpetuating the stereotype of gay men as violent and disgusting and giving permission to their readers to ridicule and laugh at gay men.

Such a newspaper would never in a million years print a headline referring in a derogatory way to all black people as “kaffirs” or all Muslims as “Towel Heads”. Yet the Daily Voice editors think nothing of using this headline that will reinforce stereotypes and give permission for homophobia and even violence against gay men and lesbians.

The Daily Voice is actually a member of the press council of South Africa and subscribe to the South African Press Code that is enforced by the Press Ombudsman. Section 2.1 of this code states clearly:

The press should avoid discriminatory or denigratory references to people’s race, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or preference, physical or mental disability or illness, or age.

I am sure when confronted with this deeply homophobic headline, the editor of the newspaper will defend himself by arguing that this is how its readers talk and that some gay men in the community in which the newspaper is read also refer to themselves as “moffies”.

I do not think such an argument should succeed. First, as the Constitutional Court has made clear in the case of Hoffmann v SAA, societal prejudice can never be used to justify discrimination. I would argue this would also mean that societal prejudice against gay men cannot justify using a pejorative term like “moffie” merely to sell more newspapers. The Constitutional Court has made clear that gay men and lesbians have the same inherent moral worth as anyone else and that this means that everyone in society has a duty to respect their human dignity – at least in public.

Second, there is a huge difference in the harmful effect of words when used by the targeted group themselves and when such words are used by the dominant group as a way of ridiculing the vulnerable group and of perpetuating the hate and revulsion of that group by society. In the first case the words can be empowering. At the very least the words lose their sting because they are not used by the powerful group to denigrate and humiliate the marginalised group. In the second case the words merely perpetuate hatred and revulsion against an already vulnerable and reviled minority.

The Daily Voice is a rubbish paper but it is read by hundreds of thousands of people in Cape Town. It is therefore a potentially powerful influence on what people think and how they behave towards a still vulnerable and marginalised minority that suffers from stigmatisation and – in extreme cases even violent and deadly attacks. Using words like “moffie” is therefore deeply irresponsible. It is also in breach of the code the newspaper had signed on to. If I thought the paper’s editor had any shame I would have said he should be ashamed of himself.

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