A landmark case in South Africa

COSATU trade unionist's tirades against Zionists to be decided in 10-year-old case.

August 15, 2019 09:36
3 minute read.
A landmark case in South Africa

South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku addresses a BDS South Africa event. (photo credit: YOUTUBE)

There is an important case of hate speech that has being going on for 10 years in Johannesburg. It originates with one of the endless conflicts in Gaza and the effect it had on a South African community. However, the end may be in sight. The highest court in the country, the Constitutional Court, is due to consider the matter sometime this month. Hopefully, it will define the limits of hate speech.

With its racial and language mix, South Africa lends itself to hate speech in many directions. Human beings are not angels, certainly not at the southern tip of Africa!

The issue we are dealing with here started in February 2009, when a high official at the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Bongani Masuku, wrote an online blog reacting to the Israeli-Hamas conflict. The trade union condemned the actions of the Israeli army.

“As we struggle to liberate Palestine from the racists, fascists and Zionists who belong to the era of their friend Hitler,” Masuku wrote, “we must not apologize. Every Zionist must be made to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our brothers and sisters in Palestine. We must target them, expose them, and do all that is needed to subject them to perpetual suffering until they withdraw from the land of others and stop their savage attacks on human dignity.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies – guardians of the local Jewish community and its attitudes and safety – lodged a complaint of hate speech with the SA Human Rights Commission, which found in their favor and referred the matter to the Equality Court. It subsequently decided Masuku’s blog was indeed hate speech, and ordered him to apologize unconditionally to the Jewish community.

Masuku appealed this decision, and to many people’s surprise, the Supreme Court of South Africa upheld his appeal in December 2018. “Public debate can be noisy, and there are many areas of dispute in our society that can provide powerful emotions,” the court said. “Nothing that Mr. Masuku wrote or said transgressed [the boundaries of constitutional protection], however hurtful or distasteful they may have seemed to members of the Jewish and wider community.”

Masuku was encouraged and continued his tirades against Zionists, saying that Jews who supported Israel should be forced to leave South Africa.

The Board of Deputies pursued the matter, and in 2009 the Human Rights Commission ordered Masuku to publicly apologize to the Jewish community. He absolutely refused.

“We will never keep quiet in the face of extreme barbarism of Israel against the Palestinian people,” COSATU said in a statement, and  accused the Human Rights Commission of being “too busy doing the bidding of the Zionist lobby.”

So here the matter stands. It is like a game of table tennis. You serve and we return. The courts are the referees or arbiters. It is now up to the Constitutional Court to decide.

1. The “K” Word
The worst curse, which can be thrown at a black person in South Africa is the “K” word, which I will not write out in full. However, here is the origin of it. The word is cafu. It derives from the Indian sub-continent and it means a non-believer and a person of a low caste. The current pronunciation is similar. It is unacceptable to use it in any circumstances, and the courts judge harshly anyone brought before them for using it, often handing out a heavy fine or jail term. Recently a white man who had senior government connections used the word in front of witnesses, and was fined 200,000 South African rand (about $13,000). The man said he would pay the fine.
2. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) always supports the Palestinians in any dispute, but one can wonder what actual support they have ever received except empty rhetoric based on your enemy’s enemy is our friend.
3. No mention is ever made in ANC speeches about the endless rocket and other terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
4. There are local Jews, sad to say, who have this attitude to Israel: “I would not set foot in that country,” said with a certain smugness. These Jews have been labeled as “Ashamed Jews” by British author Howard Jacobson. ■

The writer is a retired journalist living in Johannesburg

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