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Voices

Sticking to our guns and fighting for our rights

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For the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the handing down last week of the Constitutional Court judgment in the matter of Bongani Masuku marked the successful culmination of a process that began nearly 13 years ago, when the Board lodged a complaint against Masuku with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

In a unanimous judgment, the court upheld the SAHRC finding in which Masuku, then international relations secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), was adjudged to have been guilty of hate speech and was directed to apologise to the Jewish community. Until then, Masuku had rejected the SAHRC’s finding, and refused to apologise, but with this ruling by the country’s apex court, he has finally run out of options. He has 30 days from the time of the handing down of the judgment to do so, and we look forward to receiving it.

From the outset, Cosatu, South Africa’s largest trade-union federation and a member of the ruling tripartite alliance, backed Masuku every step of the way as the process worked its way through the courts. Instead of acknowledging that its spokesperson might have gone too far in his incendiary rhetoric against the mainstream Jewish community for its support of Israel, it never deviated from the view that he had done nothing wrong. Not only that, it persisted in accusing the SAJBD, the community’s representative spokesbody and civil-rights lobby, of making “frivolous” complaints of antisemitism in order to silence Israel’s critics, a charge that itself borders on the antisemitic.

Given Cosatu’s unyielding obduracy, the Board considered that it had no option but to escalate the matter and follow it through, regardless of what it might entail and how long it took. In this we were fortunate that the SAHRC, a body established under the Constitution to protect South African citizens from precisely this kind of abuse, likewise took the view that its considered findings couldn’t be ignored with impunity and that it must approach the courts if necessary to ensure that they are enforced. The Concourt judgment has vindicated the commission’s decision to stand firm throughout the prolonged and arduous process, and the outcome has much enhanced the credibility of this vital Chapter 9 institution.

In sticking to our guns, we again demonstrated that if we believe the civil rights of the Jewish community to have been infringed, we will fight the case right up to the highest court in the land to obtain redress. For us, however, going to court is never a first resort. Our first approach is always to engage with those concerned to arrive, if possible, at an amicable resolution. In this case, however, all our approaches to Cosatu were simply ignored. Cosatu might have avoided the whole embarrassing (and costly) process. Instead, it suffered defeat after defeat, first before the SAHRC, then in the Equality Court, and now in the Constitutional Court. It briefly appeared to have prevailed when the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in its favour, but as it transpired, that court made a spectacular botch job of applying the relevant law, something confirmed in unusually scathing terms by the Concourt.

Perhaps the most important lesson that South Africans as a whole can take from this case is that as equal citizens of a free society, we need to engage with one another in a spirit of tolerance and above all, respect, especially when we disagree.

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

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