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Another step forward against hate speech



At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shortly before the lockdown, a delegation from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) visited the China Mall in Johannesburg to do their pre-Purim shopping. Dubbed #ShoppingAgainstPrejudice, the initiative was a demonstration of solidarity with the Chinese community at a time when anti-Chinese xenophobia and fake news was running rampant. Small and symbolic as this gesture was, it was enormously appreciated, particularly as ours was the only community to come out in support of our Chinese fellow citizens during this very difficult time.

Pre-COVID-19 paranoia was the main driver of this particular outbreak of Sinophobia, but anti-Chinese prejudice in society had been surfacing well before this. In 2017, The Chinese Association (TCA) lodged a complaint of hate speech with the Equality Court following a spate of vile social media posts in the wake of a Carte Blanche programme. Commenting on these posts, the TCA’s legal representative, Joyce Nam-Ford, said, “I remember reading those posts and being so hurt and offended then scared because of the sheer torrent of abuse and threats against our children, and that this was happening in a democratic South Africa.”

It sums up eloquently the emotional and psychological harm that results from racist hate speech, even when not accompanied by direct attacks on the targeted group. It’s the reason why the SAJBD takes up these cases when our own community is grossly maligned and ensures that they are carried through to their conclusion, no matter how much time and effort it might take.

In its judgment handed down in the Johannesburg High Court last week, the Equality Court unequivocally upheld the TCA’s complaint, and imposed appropriate sanctions against 10 respondents. National Director Wendy Kahn attended the proceedings and was given the warmest of receptions by the TCA’s leadership. In our media statement released afterwards, we welcomed the judgment, commenting that it represented another significant advance in the ongoing fight against racist hate speech and unfair discrimination in South Africa. As with the recently concluded Jon Qwelane and Bongani Masuku cases, our courts sent out an unequivocal message that hate speech on the basis of people’s intrinsic identity, whether concerning their race, ethnicity, religion, or other grounds, wouldn’t be tolerated in our country. We further applaud the Chinese Association for taking up the case and pursuing it through to a successful conclusion.

In its judgment upholding the SAJBD’s complaint against Masuku in February this year, the Constitutional Court concluded by quoting the Talmudic saying, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” The Equality Court echoed this warning, with Judge Motsamai Makume saying, “This matter is about words and as Professor Karthy Govender, the chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission, said, ‘Words convey meaning and do cause hurt and injury.’”

The fight against hate speech in our country is ongoing, but with this latest judgment, we have taken another important step forward. As a result, all South Africans, particularly those belonging to vulnerable minority groups, can feel that their rights to dignity and equality have been strengthened and affirmed.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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