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Juju’s words can hurt

“We are still cruising nicely, bana ba baloi [children of witches] are not happy. Go for kill, fighters, hit hard …”

The leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, issued what he will no doubt claim is an innocuous directive to his supporters. The object of his ire was Daily Maverick journalist Pauli van Wyk. But whatever Malema’s stated objective with those words were, other EFF leaders, and social media users purporting to be EFF supporters, climbed in, heaping abuse on Van Wyk.

It’s not the first time he’s chosen such language.

Last year, Malema told a crowd of EFF members gathered outside the venue of the commission of inquiry into state capture: “An attack on Pravin [Gordhan] is an attack on white monopoly capital, Pravin is a dog of white monopoly capital, we must hit the dog until the owner comes out.”

Malema knows exactly what he’s doing when he says such things. He purposely uses language that connotes physical violence, but is allegorical enough to protect him from any allegation of hate speech. Malema understands well the power of language, and he knows just as well that his use of this language alone will cause a stir. It is exactly his intention. He seeks to sow consternation on one side, while whipping his sympathisers into a frenzy on the other.

The courts ruled this week that comments made by the EFF about former finance minister Trevor Manuel and South African Revenue Service commissioner Edward Kieswetter are “defamatory and false”. The party has indicated it will appeal the ruling. But the party’s leaders would do well to pause to reflect on the content of the things it says in public.

Malema must acknowledge that whether he does so expressly or tacitly, endorsing the intimidation and harassment of journalists is unacceptable.

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