/ 23 February 2018

Editing Steve: The limits of free expression

Singer Steve Hofmeyr.
Singer Steve Hofmeyr.


To me there will always be a bit of Bruce Beyers about Steve Hofmeyr. Bruce Beyers was the character portrayed by Steve Hofmeyr in the mid 80’s Afrikaans drama series Agter Elke Man. Beyers was the blonde blue-eyed boykie from a working class family – the rebel of the series who drove the women crazy. He was from the wrong side of the railway tracks – both dangerous and endearing.

There is nothing endearing about Steve now. Over the years he has reinvented himself from the poor man’s Brad Pitt to a singer to a political public commentator. When he first started dabbling in politics, he was vocal in his support for groups such as Solidarity and Afriforum, groups that serve almost exclusively Afrikaner interests. He mobilised for causes such as farm murders and the preservation of the Afrikaans language. He used his slightly sleazy charm to seduce the volk who gave him hero status. He gradually moved to the far right and started making statements that black people were the architects of apartheid.

In explaining why he considers himself an African, he said that he can trace his roots further back than Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema. He said: “I can actually trace my roots back in South Africa further than most black people can because they only learned to read and write 100 years ago.” This statement is vintage Steve – he likes to think of himself as the rugged guy defending the white tribe. Many of his comments went beyond crude racism and verged on the deranged. Steve – possibly because of his lingering innocuous-seeming charm – got away with it. Few have called him what he is – a dangerous racist with white supremacist leanings. He is not only an apartheid apologist but an Apartheid denier.

Last Sunday Rapport published an article they solicited from Hofmeyr. This unleashed a social media storm. His article was placed alongside an article by the illustrious Afrikaans poet and writer Antjie Krog. The articles were run under the title “Die val van ’n fout” (“The fall of a mistake”), clearly referring to the end of the Zuma era. Although the content of his article was not explicitly racist, it was certainly conservative to the bone. The article and decision to publish it immediately triggered a highly emotive social media storm in the Afrikaans community and beyond.

It must be asked why the dynamic young Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser chose to highlight the views of an outspoken racist on this historical Sunday. It was a Sunday on which Rapport had the opportunity to reflect the positive mood in the country and had the opportunity to encourage racial reconciliation. Whereas Sunday newspapers, the world over, are not known as paragons or virtue and mostly have no desire to morally educate the public, the editor of an Afrikaans paper has a special responsibility.

At worst one could say that it showed Pelser’s ideological “onderrok” or petticoat –referring to hidden sympathies and one’s true colours. Since I know Waldimar, I would give him the benefit of the doubt and put this down to a gigantic error in judgment. It is true that we are all fallible. But an error by newspaper editors is magnified to be particularly damaging. To make matters worse, Pelser stuck to his guns and defended the decision to solicit and publish the article by stating that Rapport wants to provide space to people holding opposing viewpoints regardless of whether those viewpoints shock or soothe. As some have commented on social media, Krog and Hofmeyr do not represent polar opposites. There is probably no progressive thinking Afrikaner who is capable of stooping a low as Hofmeyr. There is simply no equivalence or constructive debate here. Hofmeyr is of course also no intellectual match for Krog.

The Steve incident again propels the issue of editorial discretion into the spotlight. Inevitable comparisons arise with the resignation of Huffington Post editor Verashni Pillay. She was under pressure to resign over an error in judgment concerning inadequate fact checking of a pseudonymous piece with dubious views. Why is Pelser not facing the same heat over a monumentally misguided decision? Although the overwhelming number of those commenting on social media came out in support for Pelser, there were also cries of pain by non-white Afrikaners. Pelser’s bold failure to apologise can be juxtaposed to Pillay’s apology and graceful handling of her censure. It is interesting that Pelser gets away with offending black people whereas Pillay was ultimately sunk by the ire of white men.

Pillay was ultimately vindicated by a decision that the Press Ombudsman’s ruling against her (stating that her conduct amounted to hate speech) was incorrect. The charge that she committed hate speech verged on the absurd. As the IOL website said, “There is not an editor in this country who did not wince in sympathy when the former Huffington Post editor mistake was revealed.” In light of South Africa’s history of destructive racism, it has to be asked whether hate speech against a previously advantaged and highly privileged group is a feasible charge. The Constitutional Court has certainly never regarded white men as a vulnerable group worthy of special protection.

The Bill of Rights makes special provision for freedom of expression. Free expression clearly has limits but our constitutional jurisprudence on freedom of speech is underdeveloped. It is problematic that so far the remedy for racist speech has mostly been a mere slap on the wrist by the Human Rights Commission. The fact that Hofmeyr did not commit hate speech in this particular article makes it difficult to prove that Rapport acted in violation of the Constitution in a strict sense. But Rapport certainly violated the moral code underpinning the Constitution – often referred to as constitutional values which includes equality and non-racism.

Whereas apartheid denial has not been criminalised in South Africa, there have been calls from different quarters that actions and statements denying Apartheid should be a matter for the criminal courts. The wisdom of this proposal can be debated but the fact that Holocaust denial is a crime in several countries further indicates that previous public statements made by Hofmeyr (for example that the Sharpeville massacre was not a human rights transgression) could have serious legal repercussions.

Commenting on the Reitz Four about ten years ago, I argued in these pages that the actions of the four boys touched South Africa’s most sensitive nerve: racism. The racism of the blue- eyed boykie from Pretoria exposes us equally. Racism is the cancer that continues to eat at the body politic. By placing the wrong article on the wrong day, Rapport encouraged this pathology.

Mia Swart is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre and a research director at the HSRC