Blade NzimandeThe SACP generally welcomes what appears to have been a huge positive response to its call for an intensified struggle against all forms of racism, including cyber racism, hate speech on the internet and all other prejudices that threaten to undermine the non-racial, non-sexist and inclusive South African society we seek to build. We raised this matter in the context of celebrating one of the foremost heroes of our national liberation struggle, Comrade Joe Slovo – the late National Chair of the SACP and the first minister of housing in a democratic South Africa – who passed away 20 years ago.

Slovo, together with the late Comrade Nelson Mandela, were the founding commanders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961. Previously, in the 1950s, he was also a founder member of the Congress of Democrats, an organisation of those white South Africans who hated apartheid and were committed to fight against it. Slovo was a communist who volunteered to fight against fascism in the South African armed forces during the Second World War after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

The SACP has raised the matter of cyber-racism against the background of almost 94 years of a principled fight against colonialism and racism. The SACP was the first non-racial political party in our country, and was the first to call for black majority rule in 1929 as a foundation for building a more equitable and inclusive non-racial society. The SACP has always understood the deep interconnection between the class exploitation of capitalism and oppression based on race. As we have fought for the class interests of the working class, we have also fought against all forms of narrow prejudice that facilitate exploitation and divide our people, including racism, tribalism and sexism.

The SACP welcomes the technological advancement made by humanity over the centuries, including the radical advances that have resulted from the internet. The internet is a truly revolutionary tool that has the potential to empower ordinary people and radically change the terrain of communications. However, this very progressive invention can be captured by capitalist interests to advance an agenda that is against the interests of ordinary people. Similarly the Internet can be captured by regressive agendas that advance sectarian and divisive goals, including the promotion of racism and other kinds of prejudices.

Indeed cyber racism is rife today. Whilst the SACP is of the view that we must fight cyber-racism wherever it occurs, including in Twitter and Facebook, we are particularly concerned about the extent of racism, sexism and hate speech on the internet platforms created by our media institutions. Most appear to allow direct and unmediated responses to their articles by Internet users, many of whom hide behind anonymity which is permitted by online publications. A cursory examination of many of these postings will reveal racist and sexist commentary as well as a great deal of hate-speech and character assassination. The internet in South Africa has become the last refuge of the most blatant racists and purveyors of hatred.

Media houses would never allow publication of most of these comments in hard copy, but somehow they are tolerated in online editions. “Internet trolling”, as the practice has become known, is not unique to this country. But South Africa is one of the countries where the media provide very little protection to individual victims of this venal, derogatory, sometimes even cruel, type of harassment.

Worse still, they allow unrestricted trampling of the deepest principles for which thousands have fought and given their lives and on which our Constitution rests. I was privileged to be one of the SACP negotiating team led by Slovo at the Codesa talks of the early 1990s, as well as a participant in negotiations in the Constitutional Assembly. One of the longest running discussions and debates in those talks was the need to balance between rights, responsibilities and limitations. And consensus was reached that all rights demand responsibilities and also have limitations.

Section 16 (1) of our Constitution guarantees that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including, inter alia, the rights to freedom of the press and other media as well as academic freedom. However, section 16(2) expressly states that the above rights do not extend to “propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred (hate speech) that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”. Frankly on the above score virtually all of our media internet platforms fail dismally! And media must take responsibility and be held to account on this front.

Much as I welcome SANEF’s recognition of the problem, their answer cannot be that they are discussing the matter in boardrooms. The struggle against racism is not a boardroom one, but a transparent, societal struggle to build a non-racial and inclusive South Africa.

The Constitution is also clear that no-one can hide behind freedoms of expression and media to pursue racist and hate speech. Nor can this matter exclude government and legislative intervention where required, especially when the Constitution is violated. And this matter cannot just be reduced into a media issue. It is a human rights issue!

The SACP therefore calls for an open debate and discussion on this matter. But we are also calling upon the South Africa Human Rights Commission to comprehensively investigate the nature and extent of cyber racism and hate speech on the Internet in South Africa and come up with comprehensive proposals on how to deal with this. This matter goes to the heart of human dignity for all South Africans.

The United Kingdom has experienced similar problems to us and now intends passing legislation to criminalize such activities. People found guilty of internet trolling in Britain could be jailed for up to two years under government proposals outlined in October 2014, following a number of high-profile cases of abuse on Twitter.

British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was recently quoted in the media as saying that, “This is a law to combat cruelty – and marks our determination to take a stand against a baying cyber-mob.”

Let us engage! Such hate-prompting activities must be confronted, as part of safeguarding the building of a nonracial and non-sexist South Africa.

Article by Blade Nzimande.

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