Lively debate on hate crime

Questions about free speech, racism emerge at NMU seminar

The line between freedom of speech and hate speech is being discussed at a two-day Hate Bill Seminar at Nelson Mandela University
The line between freedom of speech and hate speech is being discussed at a two-day Hate Bill Seminar at Nelson Mandela University
Image: 123RF / Łukasz Stefański

How far can cracking down on hate speech go before it starts limiting free speech, who qualifies to be the victim of a hate crime – and can black people be racist?

Those were three questions out of many that emerged at a two-day Hate Bill Seminar at Nelson Mandela University that began on Thursday.

Visiting Spanish criminal law professor Jon-Mirena Landa, who holds the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation chair at the University of Basque Country, said the pending South African legislation was good news.

“But if it is too broad you risk suffocating freedom of speech – you risk that it will backfire and your authorities will struggle to handle it.

“As South Africans, you need to rather consider what hate problems are worst in your society and profile those as part of the new legislation.”

The seminar was organised by NMU in conjunction with the University of Basque Country, situated at the heart of a region riven by hate crime linked to conflict between separatists and the Spanish government.

The gathering included Spanish delegates as well as South African representatives from the judiciary, the National Prosecuting Authority and various watchdog organisations.

NMU department of public law Professor Joanna Botha said the event was intended to spark debate about a key South African issue.

“We are ignoring intergroup hate crimes and we need to confront them.

“Instead of academics being separated from victims on the ground and the policemen dealing with them, we all need to work together to solve this terrible problem.”

Matthew Clayton, of the Hate Crimes Working Group, said records showed that in the plethora of hate crimes, illegal eviction, damage to property and theft were the most common because of their regular link to xenophobic attacks.

Initiated in 2001, the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill was supposed to have been enacted by the close of the fifth parliament, but this had not happened and the bill now had to be reintroduced, he said.

“We really hope it will be declared in 2019.

“Most important is [that] it will create regulations compelling police and the National Prosecuting Authority to investigate reported hate crimes.”

Eastern Cape judge-president Selby Mbenenge said hate crime against albinism was particularly cruel and blatant, with albinos often referred to as incawu, the isiXhosa word for monkey.

Busisiwe Nkosi, of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, said racism was a universal ill and while there was an argument that black people could not be racist because they were still emerging from unfairly skewed power relations, this did not hold when considering individual cases.

“There is no particular group that cannot be racist.

“On the other hand, we need to understand the difference between racism and just someone being rude.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Wendy Kahn said hate speech from any quarter must be rejected.

“We all need to stand up against it,” she said.