Guest Column

OPINION: On Malema, free speech and going against the grain of our cultural biographies

2019-09-17 05:00
EFF leader Julius Malema   Photo: Waldo Swiegers

EFF leader Julius Malema Photo: Waldo Swiegers

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If we want to travel the great emotional, cultural, racial and political distance that have separated us for centuries, we'll have to learn to speak to one another in a more sophisticated and humane manner, writes Chris Jones.

On September 15 people across the globe celebrated the International Day of Democracy. Every year, on this particular day we take a step back to review and reflect on the state of democracy in South Africa and the world. This year's theme focussed on participation and, according to the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, offered an opportunity for "… all governments to respect their citizens' right to active, substantive and meaningful participation" because democracy is "built on inclusion, equal treatment and participation — and it is a fundamental building block for peace, sustainable development and human rights".  

Following this remark, one can deduce that democracy is built on a constant dialogue between civil society and the political class. The question is: how are we supposed to convey dialogue in a relatively young, maturing democracy like ours? In other words: how should we be talking to each other in order to have real influence and help establish a true democracy that provides an environment for the effective realisation of human rights, in particular freedom of speech?

Earlier this year, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found that certain comments made by the EFF leader, Julius Malema, (and other members of his party) did not constitute hate speech.

While several complaints against Malema were received by the commission, the briefing only focussed on five in particular. Among these was a complaint over the "kill the boer" song, his comments on Indian people mistreating black people in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and his utterance: "we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now".

SAHRC chairperson Bongani Majola said after the briefing "that while the comments were quite offensive, they did not qualify as hate speech". He further stated that the "commission painstakingly considered each complaint, looking at the facts, the context, the applicable law and the Constitution in the process".

Majola also said that the commission's finding in this matter did not necessarily exonerate the EFF leader from "other acts that may be the subject of hate speech".

I must admit, I really don't have a problem with this finding that Malema's call to "not slaughter white people, at least for now" is not seen as hate speech. Good analyses were made, also by senior legal officers, for whom I have lots of respect.

My problem, however, has to do with the fact that I find these kinds of utterances problematic in a democracy where a society tries to heal the divisions of the past and establish an inclusive set of democratic values.

Free speech not more important than other rights

To tell your supporters that, for example, Indian people are racists and that they monopolise the economy in KZN, is unacceptable speech. Said Malema: "We know that our fathers and mothers who are domestic workers are paid nothing by the fellow South Africans who happen to be of Indian descent."

One of the guiding judgments of the Constitutional Court states that freedom of speech is one of the most important building blocks of any democracy (S v Mamabola, 2001). But, like all rights, this right has limits.

One can never say that freedom of speech is so important that it prevails over other rights. It can never be more important than the constitutional values protecting human dignity, and the aspirations of equality and freedom. In a democracy like ours, no one should be allowed to violate anyone else's good name and character. These characteristics are the main purpose of the 27 rights in our current constitutional dispensation.

Human rights must at all times be balanced. However, in South Africa we are good at claiming rights, but not always good at respecting the rights of others. Eleanor Holmes Norton, an American politician serving as a non-voting delegate to the United States House of Representatives, once said "[t]he only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don't agree with".

The threshold to qualify as hate speech, is high. Although a comment or cry may not qualify as hate speech, as in Malema's case, it could be language that is not conducive to good relations and the advancement of democracy in a country like ours. You can't always say what you want in the way you want and where you want. This would be totally inappropriate, insensitive, and unacceptable according to Leon Wessels, co-writer of our Constitution.

Of course, this applies not only to Malema but also to so many others like the Springbok Eben Etzebeth and his friends' alleged racist statements recently in Langebaan.

If we want to travel the great emotional, cultural, racial and political distance that have separated us for centuries in South Africa, we'll have to learn to speak to one another in a more sophisticated, acceptable, and humane manner.

Forgiveness requires honest engagement

Dialogue, particularly in our democracy, should never be vengeful, threatening, and/or disrespectful of who we are as South African citizens. The way we speak to each other must always testify of high moral commitment to fellow human beings, who are common occupiers of the same emotional and political space than you.

This is the only way of mending the often broken and tattered social lines that keep people at some distance from each other, even 25 years after democracy in South Africa.

True forgiveness and deep reconciliation only happen if the conditions are set in a context that invites honest engagement. It comes with trust of the other, not to rush to judgement or to expose and demean. The latter is not how human wholeness is created and rainbow societies are built.

Sometimes we must work against the grain of our social and cultural biographies, according to the public intellectual and Stellenbosch educationist Jonathan Jansen, by opening ourselves fully to the prospects of a new envisioned South Africa. We simply must exemplify the kind of decency that should mark a post-apartheid South Africa.

This is how we will free ourselves from who we are deep down, often based in our past. Hopefully this will help me too as a middle-aged white Afrikaans speaking male, to better cope with my often "unbearable whiteness of being" which has to do with guilt and privilege.

I am convinced that the following words of Paul Robeson, an American bass baritone concert artist and stage and film actor, apply to our beautiful country too: "our country's strong, our country's young, and her greatest songs are still unsung".

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.

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.

Read more on:    julius malema  |  hate speech  |  freedom of expression
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