The danger of silence

2011-09-15 00:00

WORDS are powerful weapons that can lead to disastrous actions and even genocide: "The words of one person inciting others … that's how a genocide starts," Judge Collin Lamont said on Monday in handing down judgment in the hate- speech case against ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

But silence, too, can be dangerous. The lie of silence can be just as evil as the lie of speech. Suppressed hatred, so the argument goes, may be more dangerous than expressed hatred.

And so I met Monday's ruling with mixed feelings, and a strong sense of déjà vu. The Equality Court ruling wasn't the first time that the words dubhula ibhunu have made headlines. In 2003, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) ruled on appeal that the phrase "kill the boer, kill the farmer", constituted hate speech, after initially stating that although the slogans may be distasteful and hurtful, "offending the rights to dignity and equality", they did not constitute hate speech.

Indeed, the SAHRC initially determined that instances of speech could offend the Constitution, but rather than be banned as hate speech, should rather be subject to public debate and criticism within the public realm.

In South Africa, few would argue that racism no longer exists in our Rainbow Nation. It is there, and often of a very indirect kind, and it is this very indirectness that makes it an extremely difficult issue to tackle. Direct and aggressive racism is easier to challenge. If it is prohibited, it is only suppressed.

And for the media, reporting on racism, for example, or terrorism, or any other issue that is controversial and difficult, benefits the public. In the case of Malema's singing Dubhula Ibhunu, the issue of race was forced into the public sphere. People talked about it, over dinner, in taxis, and watching soccer and rugby. They were given the opportunity to discuss and discover similarities and differences. And they became aware (if they weren't already) that there are radical groups out there, who do say nasty and provocative things, and that it only takes a handful of radicals to create big problems. You could say the media were doing a public service in letting people know what Malema and his cronies were singing.

There are serious implications involved in opening the floodgates for the banning of hate speech. One is that failing to report slogans such as Dubhula Ibhunu can lead to distorted public images with detrimental consequences.

South Africans have seen this before, when it was not until the assassination of former South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993 that the slogan, "kill the boer, kill the farmer" was reported in the media, in spite of journalists having heard it for years at mass rallies and funerals.

Former journalist and political analyst Anna Starcke raised the following questions after Hani's death. Why did the media, having demonised Hani as a man of violence, fail to correct the image when he turned to peacemaking? Why had they not previously recorded the slogan, which had cropped up regularly? And why did they wait until former ANC youth leader Peter Mokaba used the phrase, and then beat him to death with it?

Perhaps it was years of censorship taking its toll. Perhaps former Sunday Times editor Ken Owen was right when he argued that in the late eighties, both John Kane-Berman of the Institute of Race Relations and Jill Wentzel of the Black Sash had pointed out that right-wing violence was roundly condemned, but violence from the left was covered by an "obdurate and politically correct silence".

One way to view censorship is in terms of political correctness. Free-speech advocate Ursula Owen describes political correctness as having "a sort of utopianism about it, and a touching, if rather authoritarian belief that behaviour, if properly conditioned, will improve". She argues that the problem with the ideal of political correctness is that, like so many censorships, it can turn so easily against what it is meant to protect, encouraging everyone to be on guard against everyone else.

This is why free-speech advocates argue that there is little connection between hate-speech laws and the lessening of ethnic and racial tension or violence, as what is needed is more, rather than less, attention to the ideas of racial and religious superiority; that they must be confronted to be understood; that dialogue and democracy are more effective tools in understanding the anatomy of hate than silence; and for that reason, freedom of expression is necessary.

South Africans are far too quick to resort to censorship when the going gets a little tough, and with the pending Protection of Information Bill about to be bulldozed through Parliament, the last thing we need are court rulings in favour of shutting people up.

• Nicola Jones is the head of media and cultural studies at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg. She writes in her personal capacity.

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