A Vuvuzela democracy

Ours is a vuvuzela democracy: noisy in a joyous and sometimes painful way, repeatedly testing our tolerance for unpleasant – even harmful – cacophony.

This week, Kuli Roberts’ Sunday World column caused a storm because it played on crude and offensive racial stereotypes in a failed attempt to be humorous about coloureds. And our courts have been hearing attempts to silence Julius Malema by declaring the “Kill the Boer” song to be hate speech. These provide opportunities to consider the best way to deal with hurtful speech in a country with a painful history of racial conflict.

They key question about Roberts’ column was one I asked around the David Bullard column in the Sunday Times which led to his dismissal under similar circumstances: how did this stuff get into print?

It should have been read by two or three people before publication: a sub-editor, a proof-reader and, hopefully, an editor. Editors don’t always have the time, but part of the job of the other two readers would be to alert him or her to a potential problem. In the Bullard case, it turned out that the material had been approved by a duty editor, who was never properly called to account.

This week, Sunday World editor Wally Mbhele quickly took responsibility for Roberts’ gaff and discontinued the column. Group editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya, who was also Bullard’s editor, launched an internal inquiry. Rather mysteriously, he said: “Avusa Media will not allow any of its titles to disseminate prejudicial commentary that reinforces divisions and entrenches racial stereotypes.” They just had, for the second time, and again only responded when there was an outcry.

Where were the editors when they were needed? What steps were taken post-Bullard to manage columnists constructively? These are the questions any internal inquiry should answer if it is to carry any weight.

Malema should be stopped from singing his song, knowing what pain and division it causes. But the case does not belong in the courts.

The writers of our constitution made hate speech the only exception to our freedom of speech, but wisely gave it a very narrow definition. To fall foul of the law, such speech must advocate hatred, it must do so on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity or religion, and it must constitute incitement to cause harm. In other words, it is not enough to be rude and even offensive to be censored.

Stereotyping is not hate speech. Singing freedom songs should not be outlawed. There has to be evidence that the alleged hate speech will cause real harm.

In various Bills and Acts and rulings since the constitution was written, there have been attempts to widen this definition to include a full swathe of offensive political talk. In doing so, we forget how often hate speech laws end up being used against the very people they are intended to protect, and how oppressive they can become when given a wide definition.

Those who now push for a wide definition to silence Malema will rue it when the law is used to silence protestors and dissenters, such as the expression of rage against inequality and poverty. Narrow the space, and you narrow it for everyone including those whose anger and protests we need to hear.

Malema’s song is a political issue, and should be dealt with by his peers and his party, just as Roberts’ issue is an editorial one that has to be dealt with by her colleagues and editors. We need to have a society in which those who express racism and hatred are sidelined and marginalized. Censorship will just bottle it up and cause anger – especially when it involves a freedom song. Ban it and you ban it for all time in all places. You are trying to rewrite our history.

Censorship is like a habit-forming drug. It is our political tik. Do it once, enjoy the shorter-term relief it gives you and you will want more. Allow it in the house, and we will struggle to drive it out again.

* This column first appeared in Business Day, 2 March 2011

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