South Africa


Tiptoeing through the minefield of hashtags and hate speech

Pieter-Dirk Uys, satirist, author and social activist performs at Daily Maverick's The Gathering in Cape Town, 18 August 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

Pieter-Dirk Uys delivered this speech at the #10xDMGathering held on Wednesday.

As a child, growing up in the Cape Town white suburb of Pinelands, the hate speech that was used against me at school probably helped me defend myself with humour. Because my mother was German, I was called a Nazi. Because my father was an Afrikaner, I was called a Boer. Because I spoke English, I was called a Rooinek, and because I was obvious, I was called a Moffie.

Once I started my career in the early 1970s as a playwright, focusing on the trials and tribulations of my society living under the restraints of separate development, I focused my onslaught on the system of apartheid by using humour as opposed to comedy. It was not necessary to make jokes; all I had to do was just reflect the truth. Inevitably it was chillingly funnier.

The Nationalist government used their system of censorship spearheaded by the Publications Control Board to declare all critical references to their policies of legalised racism as “hate speech”. This included the promotion of democracy and support of anti-apartheid freedom fighters. The words of Nelson Mandela were regarded as hate speech and banned. Even looking at his picture was regarded as a crime against the state. All criticism of Christian Nationalist governance and Afrikaner culture was deemed negative and therefore punishable by law. Lives were also lost.

Among the few peaceful weapons one had to use to illuminate the details of that evil system was to ridicule the acts of government with the contempt it deserved. Apartheid was not funny. Through the careful use of satire it became possible and essential to portray the servants of that system with outraged ridicule and dramatic contempt.

When my dramas were banned by the Publications Control Board between 1974 and 1980, the following justifications of censorship were officially tabled:

The publication is deemed to be undesirable within the meaning of section 42 (2) (a), (b) and (c) of the Publications Act of 1974 because of:

(i) The manner in which the theme is handled and portrayed;

(ii) The use of the dialogue of words, phrases and sentences deemed to be indecent, obscene, offensive or harmful to public morals;

(iii) The frequency with which God’s Name is taken in vain;

(iv) The bringing of certain sections of the inhabitants of the Republic into ridicule and/or contempt, and setting the racial groups in disharmony against each other.

Compare these to provisions of the proposed Prevention and Combating of Hate Crime and Hate Speech Bill soon to be introduced to Parliament.

Section 4 (1) (a): Any person who intentionally, by means of any communication whatsoever, communicates to one or more persons in a manner that is insulting towards any other person or group of persons, and which demonstrates a clear intention, having regard to all the circumstances, to bring into contempt or ridicule any person or group of persons, based on race, gender, sex – which includes intersex – ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, religion, belief culture, language, birth, disability, HIV status, nationality, gender identity, albinism or occupation or trade, is guilty of the offence of hate speech.

(Soon I will be liable for a fine of R75,000 if I greet myself in the bathroom mirror each morning with a hearty: Hello you fokkin ou moffie!)

By 1974 I knew that direct actions against apartheid could easily be stopped, and so I used every possible diversion tactic to focus attention on that government’s corruption. These included intentionally insulting persons or groups of persons who were perpetuating legalised racism, religious persecution, sexual perversity, ethnic cleansing and other politically correct ways to destroy and demean democratic freedoms. Since 1994 the Struggle continues. A luta continua.

The present proposed legislation against so-called hate speech can easily be used as a way to criminalise satirical criticisms of how we are being governed, and on what is wrong in our society and its people. We saw in the last few years how rotten government, rampant corruption, arrogant behaviour and a minefield of explosive truths were protected by political correctness.

Democracy has freedom of expression and freedom of speech as the backbone of its survival. Using weapons of ridicule, offence, insult and humour against totalitarianism and fascism has proved that hate speech can be deflated and diminished with the bitter laughter it deserves.

Enshrining hate speech in law as a weapon of offence is to empower it with an unnecessary strength and success to harm even more effectively. To imprison people is not to change their minds. It is to push racism underground and to create martyrs out of pariahs.

Fines and imprisonment through legislation are not the solution. Fight hate speech with education and alternatives. Fight hate speech with love speech. Fight hate speech through social media with hashtag #HateSpeechMustFall. And don’t press send when pissed.

When Nelson Mandela was told that in a Pretoria police station on a policeman’s computer, the screensaver was a gorilla’s face becoming Mandela’s face, Madiba replied with a smile: “Of course, every gorilla wants my face.” That put any issue of hate speech, racism, ridicule or contempt into a healthy democratic perspective. It was laughed at and only remembered for its welcome absurdity.

An often repeated punchline in my entertainment will soon be questioned under the proposed controls on freedom of speech: Politicians are like monkeys. The higher they climb the pole of ambition, the more of their arses we can see. That is not hate speech. That is funny. It is also true, because usually the only people who are offended are those who fit the description. DM


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