Racism, hate speech, witch hunts, and rapid responses
"South Africa has been a guiding light in the world in conquering racism." Surprising though it seems, there is truth in this statement by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.
The United States, which was happy to preach to South Africa, now seems to be experiencing greater polarisation along racial lines. Many European countries, which were also happy to lecture us, have long found it difficult to accommodate ethnic minorities.
Many people assumed South Africa would not change without racial war. We did. Most of our worst racial laws were repealed by the party that had enacted them. The handover of power by the National Party (NP) to the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994 was dignified and orderly. Surveys show that most South Africans are relaxed about race relations. We have just had an election in which most whites voted for a party with a black leader.
So why does the department need to establish a "national monitoring and reporting centre", an "early warning system", and a "rapid response mechanism" to combat racism? Why is the deputy minister of justice and constitutional development, John Jeffery, busy with a "hate crimes bill" to create an offence of hate speech?
The deadline for comment on the department's proposals is 31st August. Mr Jeffery says his bill has been delayed by the need to reconcile the criminalisation of hate speech with the constitutional right of freedom of expression. This right does not protect "incitement of imminent violence" or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, sex, or religion where such advocacy "constitutes incitement to cause harm".
Seeking to justify his bill, Mr Jeffery cited Penny Sparrow, who earlier this year compared blacks who threw litter on beaches to monkeys. She has been lumbered with R150 000 to pay in damages, plus costs, and will be back in court next month charged with crimen injuria. Her remarks were crass, but "incitement to cause harm" or "imminent violence"? Did they even "advocate hatred"?
The damages awarded against her are excessive when compared with the R165 000 awarded last week against two women who four years ago assaulted a third whom they found in bed with the husband of one of them. They dragged her outside by her breasts, stripped her naked, and then sjambokked her as they chased her down the street. A video of their attack was later published. Four years ago a man was awarded only R110 000 in damages after a police assault which rendered him unconscious.
Singling out Ms Sparrow has the smell of a witch hunt. Her remarks were no more offensive than Jacob Zuma's characterisation of the Democratic Alliance as "snakes" or of whites as land thieves, or of Julius Malema's description of whites as descendants of colonial murderers who committed genocide against blacks. Nor were they more offensive than those of the constitutional court judge who recently suggested that Afrikaner culture belonged in the "dust-bins of history". Mr Jeffery might find himself having to prosecute more "hate crimes" than he bargained for.
As for the proposed "rapid response mechanism" we have already had a warning of how this is likely to operate. Two months ago the principal of Koeitjies en Kalfies Kleuterskool, a nursery school in Centurion near Pretoria, was the target of precisely such a response. The Gauteng education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, descended upon her while inviting his followers to come along. A home affairs official invited "cadres" also to come along. The Economic Freedom Fighters sent in some of their bullies as well.
The pretext for this orchestrated intimidation was a misleading photograph posted on social media of a black child sitting alone at a table at the school. There was an entirely innocent explanation. By then, however, Mr Lesufi's "rapid response" had been followed by threats to the school owner's life and to burn down her school.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.