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Kommandokorps: Should racist thought be criminalised?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The Democratic Alliance is scrambling to have the Kommandokorps paramilitary group closed and investigated by the police and the Human Rights Commission. But aren’t we drawing the line on hate speech too soon? Is the Kommandokorps not legitimate political expression, no matter how repugnant we find its views?

Where is the line between legitimate free speech and hate speech? If you read our Constitution, it places it at the point where incitement to immediate violence, war propaganda or hatred based on a number of criteria, including race.

To be precise, the Constitution says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

Section 16 limits the freedom of expression, however: “The right in subsection (1) does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

It’s a fairly straightforward rule. The Constitution goes a long way to provide for institutions to police its ideas. We have the labour court, the equality court and the South African Human Rights Commission. The playing field has been set out nicely – we all know where the boundaries are when it comes to expression, and we know fairly well what the punishment for crossing the line is. ANCYL president Julius Malema was fined heavily by the equality court for saying that the woman who accused President Jacob Zuma of rape must have enjoyed the ordeal.

But there’s the other, louder and often more persuasive court when it comes to racism, hate speech and that sort of thing: that of public opinion. Only recently Supersport sacked its rugby presenter Darren Scott when it emerged that he had called a black colleague a kaffir. Scott has since conducted several interviews, expressing his deep sorrow for his words, but Supersport wouldn’t take him back in a hurry. The backlash against the company would have been immense.

My own views on racism are evolving. At one stage, I encouraged the righteous anger fomented by the media against the likes of Scott, Dan Roodt and Annelie Botes every time they misspeak. I have grown tired of the war of attrition against pockets of resistance that are still here among us, but the truth is that hanging the sword of Damocles over any would-be racist doesn’t help the problem at all. It simply drives it underground. Perhaps the best way to deal with racists (sexists, homophobes – you name it) is to allow them to say their piece, and then counter their thinking with rational thought. It won’t change the bigot’s mind, but it would go a long way to convincing the public listening to the debate that the hate-filled person is wrong.

This brings us to the Kommandokorps, a paramilitary group that is, according to the Mail & Guardian, stoking an insane paranoia in young Afrikaans boys out in Mpumalanga. All the elements of right-wing extremism are there: anger, white superiority, intense paranoia and a hard-on for big guns.

Not only are the camp attendees taught to hate the new South Africa (losing power is never an easy pill to swallow), they are also encouraged to treat all black people as inferior and extremely violent beings. This all needs to be done to make these children feel like “good Afrikaners”, apparently.

One of the doctrines that are taught is that of a biological ordering of the human race, with whites at the pinnacle of this pyramid. “Let there be no doubt. Apart from the Aborigines in Australia, the blacks of Africa are the most underdeveloped and barbaric members of the human race on Earth,” the Kommandokorps teaches.

“The training has taught me that you should hate black people,” said EC, one of the boys sent to the camp. “They kill everyone who crosses their path. I don’t think I can be friends with Thabang and Tshepo anymore.”

Another boy said, “There’s a war going on between blacks and whites. A lot of blood will flow in the future. I definitely feel more like an Afrikaner now. I feel the Afrikaner blood in my veins.”

The camp teaches racism (there’s no doubt about that) and bases it on both fear, a basic mathematical and statistical illiteracy and junk science – but is it hate speech? Should the police and the SAHRC get involved?

The DA has led the charge against the Kommandokorps. The Mpumalanga legislature has adopted a resolution to have the group closed, and have apparently already contacted the farm where this all happens, and asked the owners not to let Kommandokorps executive director Franz Jooste use it anymore.

It isn’t entirely clear to me why the authorities should get involved. Jooste may be teaching racism, but that doesn’t distress me. His views are his issue, not mine. And I’m not convinced that we can rule that discrimination or human rights violation that can be sanctioned has happened yet. There is no evidence that anyone in the Kommandokorps or who went through a course has actually gone out and ill-treated a black person in any way. The potential is there, certainly, but if we were to base all laws on this, the police would be able to swoop into Greenside and arrest everyone in “The Office” for having the potential to drive home drunk. The DA is calling for nothing but the criminalisation of a certain thought.

“There is always a tension for people of political expression and contravention of human rights,” DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane said to me. “When you see the statement that the leader makes in defence to this, I felt personally attacked as a Black South African and the potential threat that this poses. So I’m my preliminary conclusion, there are human rights violations that are taking place. You may argue that the AWB would not have expression, if this was the line taken consistently.

“My view is that if I placed something that contravenes the rights of another human being and classed them as sub-human, concern as a society must be expressed. Perhaps the ultimate fight I’m picking is for the broader democratic rights that all of us have to be human and that no race will ever have opportunity to dominate another,” Maimane said.

We will wait and see what the police and the SAHRC have to say about all this. Organisations like AfriForum have condemned the group. Although how AfriForum can on one hand condemn the Kommandokorps and on the other peddle the lie that farm murders are racially motivated with a straight face is beyond me. That’s the whole motivation for the Kommandokorps, is it not? The idea that they need to crouch in the bushes with a big gun because the black man is coming to slit his throat and eat his children. The South Africa that rode Darren Scott out of town on a pole isn’t going to be sympathetic to the argument that the Kommandokorps could be teaching perfectly legal expression. But it is an idea that we ought to entertain because if we go too far with political correctness, we only succeed in introducing a new intolerance.

South Africa isn’t a fragile place, just waiting to go up in flames (just because News24 commenters believe it, doesn’t make it so). We didn’t build this democracy on a foundation of egg shells. It won’t all go to the dogs if we stop treating this democracy like it is only surviving because we’ve all agreed to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. People like Jooste are allowed to say: “You know what, this new South Africa thing isn’t working for me. I don’t want to live in a society where we’re all equal”. Again, his views are his problem. The police should step in once he makes them your problem.

The new South Africa should prove these racists wrong by allowing them to denigrate it. We should at least have enough faith in the power of a united society to not treat it as if Jooste or the Kommandokorps could ever unravel it. DM


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