Not everything offensive is hate speech

Just as the world focused on the birth of a democratic South Africa in early 1994, unimaginable horrors were being visited on people in another corner of the continent.

The Rwanda genocide was in direct contrast to the hopefulness of the South African transformation, creating ties between the two countries that have never been fully acknowledged. In fact, fascination with the drama in South Africa may have been part of the reason that the Rwanda genocide went almost unnoticed by the world’s media. 

Perhaps now, as a flurry of court cases marks our struggle to define the concept of hate speech for ourselves, we could draw on the Rwandan experience to learn that not everything that is ugly or hurtful deserves the name.

In that country, a newspaper, Kangura, and a radio station, Radio-Tlvision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), played a key role in fanning genocidal hatred, famously referring to Tutsis as cockroaches who needed to be exterminated.

“The graves are only half empty; who will help us fill them?” a presenter apparently said on one occasion.

RTLM played a significant role in organising the killing, which it referred to euphemistically as work. It pointed out where people might be hiding and identified people to be killed. In one case recounted by American researcher Darryl Li, a man interviewed at a roadblock said five inyenzi (cockroaches) had been killed and the radio presenter encouraged him to keep it up.

Almost a decade later, three media executives were found guilty of incitement to genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. “The newspaper and the radio explicitly and repeatedly, in fact relentlessly, targeted the Tutsi population for destruction,” it ruled.

It is clear that nothing in current South African debate—not ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s violent songs, not the offensive views of singer Steve Hofmeyr—compares with this kind of deliberate incitement of large-scale violence. In the Malema case, pressure group AfriForum has argued that the song has led to farm murders but the evidence is hardly persuasive.

Our Constitution has its own formulation of hate speech, providing that freedom of speech does not protect “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.

The notion of harm is central to the Constitution’s approach and the difficulty is that it can cover a wide range of possibilities. A Rwandan scenario would easily fall foul of the definition but what about situations in which somebody’s feelings are simply hurt, for instance? That could also be held to be a kind of harm, after all.

There is a sense in the other clauses limiting freedom of speech that the intent was to aim for the more serious end of the spectrum, as the provision on hate speech sits next to one dealing with propaganda for war and incitement to imminent violence.

The Equality Act goes considerably further than the Constitution, including anything intended to be hurtful. In terms of this approach, former columnist Jon Qwelane was recently found guilty of writing a homophobic column in the Sunday Sun and fined R100 000.

Perhaps the Constitutional Court will at some stage clarify which is the correct definition: the narrower one of the Constitution itself or the broader one of the Equality Act.

In general discussion, the term has come to be used increasingly loosely in a kind of rhetorical arms race. The line between racism and hate speech becomes harder and harder to see, until it seems as though they mean the same thing.

In the process, the concept of hate speech has lost precision and value. It has become little more than a general insult that can be used in a wide variety of situations. To extend the terms range even more, statements are now sometimes said to be “bordering on hate speech”.

This does not suggest that we should accept crude racism, homophobia or the like as a legitimate part of public discussion. It is perfectly reasonable to object to that kind of thing and it must be made clear that no matter how robust our debate becomes there are some things that have no place on public platforms.

But not everything offensive, racist or discriminatory is hate speech, which should refer only to situations in which there is a real intention to incite people to take action against others, otherwise we will have no vocabulary available if the term really needs using.

In Rwanda, real hate speech fuelled a genocide that claimed 800 000 lives. To use the term loosely devalues the scale of that horror.

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