Hate speech in South Africa

One of the things he said was, “Any family who sends its son or daughter to be part of the Israel Defense Force must not blame us when something happens to them with immediate effect."

September 24, 2019 14:32
3 minute read.
Hate speech in South Africa

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies leadership appears in Constitutional Court with the legal teams for the SA Human Rights Commission, and the SA Holocaust and Genocide Center. (photo credit: COURTESY SAJBD)

The dictionary describes “hatred” as “dislike strongly, bear malice to, ill will.” Speaking out with these emotions excites hatred toward listeners. Bongani Masuku, a high executive in the South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU), showed all these emotions in a talk in 2009. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) took Masuku to court, and he was ordered to apologize but has consistently refused to do so. The case has dragged on for a decade.

Now it has returned to the South African headlines. Using what has been described as hate speech against South African Jews and by extension Israel, Masuku has become a spokesperson for those who believe that by using the word “Zionist” instead of “Jew” or “Israel,” the harm is less.

One of the things he said was, “Any family who sends its son or daughter to be part of the Israel Defense Force must not blame us when something happens to them with immediate effect.” He did not specify if he was implying that the harm will be done to the son or daughter in Israel or to the family in South Africa.

Masuku also called South African Jews “friends of Adolf Hitler,” and has been on record as saying that any South African Jew who supported Israel should “not just be encouraged” to leave the country, but should be “forced to leave South Africa.”

The long-running court cases continued with judgments being appealed against and overturned, and then re-appealed and overturned again. The Constitutional Court (the highest court in the land) heard arguments at the end of August that the language in various statements made by Masuku was a direct attack on the Jewish community. It reserved judgment and postponed the matter.
SAJBD National Chairman Shaun Zagnoev remains confident that the issue will end favorably toward the Jewish community.

“We are hoping for a ruling that will confirm our community’s inalienable right to speak out for and identify with Israel without being subjected to threats and intimidation,” he said. “In standing up for Jewish civil rights, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of our greater duty, in the words of our mission statement, to be part of building a South Africa where everyone is free from the evils of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.”

Zagnoev stressed how crucial it was for political spokespeople in particular to use responsible language that did not inflame tensions and further divide communities.

Supporting the SAJBD were the South African Human Rights Commission, the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, the Psychological Society of South Africa, the Rule of Law Project and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They want Masuku to be held accountable for the threats and inflammatory comments he has made against the Jewish community.

On the other side were COSATU, the Palestine Support Mission, BDS, and a group who supports Gaza.

COSATU has waved swastikas at Jewish meetings, believing that by doing so they were acting “in support of the people of Gaza” whom they maintain have been savagely treated by Israel.

The debate around hate speech in the courts seems to mean whatever the purveyors of the term want it to mean. But no doubt those who have had “hate speech” directed at them know full well.

Incidentally, in South Africa recently, the flag of the previous apartheid government was declared hate speech. Need one look further than the swastika to see the reality of this?

Yet, how can hate speech be defined? The South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation’s definition: “Genocide begins with words. Words have consequences. Hate speech, repeated hundreds and thousands of times, becomes incitement to commit genocide. It creates a culture of genocide.”

It now remains for the Constitutional Court to give guidance.

Lionel Slier is a retired journalist living in Johannesburg

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