Guest Column

Helpmekaar: Freedom of expression also protects biased opinions

2017-08-03 11:13
The Constitution

The Constitution

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Christine Botha

On 31 July 2017, the columnist Rams Mabote, wrote an article for News24 in which he shared his view on the future of young white Afrikaans boys attending an Afrikaans private school, Helpmekaar Kollege, after watching a rugby match between Helpmekaar and his son’s school. 

The heading of the article already sets the tone for it, in which he announces “Helpmekaar not preparing learners for the real world”. He continues to state why he feels “sorry” for these young boys “who are cushioned in a cocoon of Afrikanerdom” and are ill-prepared for the realities of a mixed work environment. 

He avoids saying directly that the school is a racist school but without checking the facts he announces with “its race-exclusive make-up” it provides opportunities for prejudice. He attempts to provoke a response by stating “They speak the same language, they are all white and they almost look alike” (own emphasis). This article elicited a flood of responses from former students. 

The Constitution, in section 16(1), recognises the right to freedom of expression – and that includes biased, stereotypical perceptions, such as Mabote’s article – and the press provides a platform for the exchange of diverse opinions. As much as Mabote’s right to express his view is protected, the view of former students challenging his uninformed assumptions are protected. 

The limit however, is that the right to freedom of expression does not include hate speech, as narrowly defined in the Constitution. Fortunately for Mabote, his article does not amount to “advocacy of hatred” based on race “which constitutes incitement to harm”.  

His article perhaps does raise the point that there appears to be a need to openly discuss what ‘transformation’ in South Africa means, and especially why speaking Afrikaans, and wishing to attend an Afrikaans school, is considered a barrier to his perception of ‘transformation’? 

The attack on Helpmekaar could have been an attack on any Afrikaans school. This school just happens to be a private school, one of hundreds in Gauteng. Various sections of the Constitution protect language rights, such as sections 30 and 31. Section 29(2) of the Constitution specifically recognises the right to receive education in one’s mother tongue, if “reasonably practicable” at public educational institutions. 

Private schools, being independent educational institutions maintained at their own expense, are also afforded constitutional recognition. Importantly – and this is what Mabote’s article neglects to mention - is that section 29(3)(a) of the Constitution specifically prohibits private schools from discriminating on the basis of race. 

Helpmekaar might have predominately white learners but the school also has learners of other races. Sadly, what Mabote has done is to reinforce a draconian apartheid stereotype that Afrikaans is only spoken by white South Africans. Ironically, according to the latest IRR South Africa Survey, Afrikaans is the third most spoken home language in South Africa. 

In a democratic society, it is crucial to debate issues which will shape the society the Constitution envisages. Mabote’s responsibility, as a social commentator, should be to honestly debate issues, and raise sincere questions. If that was his intention, he would have first ensured his facts were correct. 

Furthermore, if he intended to honestly debate the issue of ‘transformation’ he would have refrained from relying on stereotypes which only fuel racial intolerance, especially towards those who choose to be taught in Afrikaans. 

The preamble of the Constitution emphasises the need for “unity in diversity” but articles such as Mabote’s do not unite us in our diversity – rather they create and perpetuate racial stereotypes.  

-  Christine Botha is legal officer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights. She is a former student of Helpmekaar Kollege.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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