Hate Speech in South Africa

Here’s ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, speaking to a group of 150 University students last May on why South African President Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser must have enjoyed having sex with him:

When a woman didn’t enjoy it [sex], she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast, and ask for taxi money.”


But of course there are people with disgusting views in the world and they say disgusting things. But the story then takes an unexpected turn. Here’s Lori at Feministing:

And now, according to a recent ruling by the South African Equality Court, these words also legally constitute hate speech and discrimination, and will not be tolerated without legal ramification.

And she’s cheering this on:

The credit for this monumental victory belongs to Sonke Gender Justice Network, an amazing South African organization that supports men and boys to act against domestic and sexual violence. It was them who filed the lawsuit against Malema when they recognized the opportunity to make a public statement about the harm and destruction caused by rape culture.

This move took bravery. It also took strategic vision. The organization where I work, which has partnered with Sonke since 2008, has been anxiously awaiting this verdict since Sonke formalized their complaint in May, but we also recognize that the outcome wasn’t really the point. The very act of them filing the claim was such a powerfully symbolic feminist victory.

Like a number of commenters on Lori’s post, I think this is misguided. The “statement” that what Malema said is unacceptable is a good one, but the practical consequences of criminalizing political speech are very real and not likely to be beneficial in the long run. The boundaries of what kind of discourse about race and gender is or isn’t acceptable is being constantly contested in civil society and I think it’s naive to believe that the state is going to consistently police those boundaries in a consistently beneficial way. It’s very easy to imagine expansive powers to restrict speech being turned against marginal groups, radicals, or anyone who’s politically inconvenient. Especially in a relatively new democracy like South Africa it’s important to stick to liberal principles.

Ndesanjo Macha has a roundup of responses from a variety of points of view that makes me think this ruling may well be reversed on appeal.