If there’s one thing I don’t take EFF leader Julius Malema for, it’s oversensitive. Perhaps I am wrong, based on his party’s attempts to have EWN reporter Barry Bateman fired after he was accidentally caught on camera calling Malema a p**s (in the unlikely event that there are any non-South Africans reading this, that’s an Afrikaans word that is seen as particularly offensive in SA).
This is the same Malema who has argued that he should be allowed to say that he is “not calling for the slaughter of whites, at least for now”, command Pauli van Wyk to “Go to hell, Satan“, or offer Jacques Pauw an opportunity to go “f*ck himself”, all in the name of freedom of speech.
Even Bateman’s insult itself did not come out of nowhere but as a response to Malema aggressively saying: “Uniform or no uniform. Afrikaner or no Afrikaner. White or pink! I deal with you! Decisively.” He also called Bateman a “Boet”.
When Malema gets insulted, however, his party releases a statement with them coming across as wounded victims, making it clear that they have no intention of taking what they regularly dish out.
The statement holds journalists responsible for the “toxic environment that the EFF has to operate in”, calls an insult quite clearly captured on camera by mistake “naked provocation”, and claimed a white journalist who said the same about a white politician would have been placed under suspension with immediate effect.
In this current climate, where both left and right see the media as their enemy and most people don’t even read stories, choosing instead to get outraged at an eight-word headline, EFF supporters will almost certainly see this column as an attempt by a white journalist to protect one of my supposed comrades.
While I can’t assume to know Bateman’s personal politics, his Twitter activity shows what I assume is an affinity with right-wing libertarians and classic liberals against whose ideas I am vehemently opposed, such as the Renegade Report, the Capitalist Party of South Africa’s Kanthan Pillay and AfriForum’s Ernst Roets.
A retweet is not necessarily an endorsement, as Malema himself argued when journalists including Bateman recently hauled him to the Equality Court in an attempt to sanction him for allegedly inciting threats against journalists. But the consistent sharing of specific ideas can, I believe, be taken as a relatively reliable sample of their politics.
As Bateman is not a natural ally for me, this column is not an attempt to defend him. What it really is, is a call for consistency.
Many prominent South Africans appear not to have cottoned on to the basic principle that supporting freedom of speech means also supporting it when it doesn’t work in your favour.
Who understands this? Certainly not supposed free speech champions AfriForum, who believe the ruling that the gratuitous display of the old South African flag amounting to hate speech is an affront to this right. When it comes to their enemies, however, AfriForum is quick to lay hate speech charges.
They’ve done this in response to Malema’s singing of struggle song Dhubul iBhunu, which they labelled hate speech despite evidence that “kill the boer” is a vulgar translation of what the lyrics mean, with Gwede Mantashe arguing in a research paper by the University of Cape Town’s Joelien Pretorius that “ibhunu” is a metaphor for the oppressor.
This consistency should apply to Bateman as well.
He was one of the journalists who joined the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) in trying to have Malema sanctioned for hate speech, with the organisation’s case accusing Malema of inciting “abuse and harassment” from EFF supporters.
Sanef’s chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase argued in the Daily Maverick that a section of the Equality Act which says no person can “propagate, advocate or communicate” words which could reasonably be construed to “be hurtful; Be harmful or to incite harm; Promote or propagate hatred” proves that hate speech needn’t “involve incitement to imminent violence, as wrongly quoted by some commentators”.
While calling someone a name when you thought the camera was off is not the same as purposefully broadcasting the insult with the intention of it being heard, the definition provided by Mahlase appears to brand Bateman’s use of the p-word to describe Malema as potential hate speech.
This is not to say that I believe Bateman doesn’t have a right to hurl insults at the EFF’s commander-in-chief. That would indeed be hypocritical of someone – me – who recently branded Ernst Roets a doos in a headline.
Rather, I would argue that South Africa’s journalists, who by the very nature of our profession will end up upsetting certain people, should not be so quick to take legal action in the face of harsh and hurtful rhetoric.
Likewise, if Malema and the EFF want to go around hurling insults with impunity, they can’t react with what I can only assume is fake outrage when a similar insult gets hurled at them.
In a country where many people are assumed to have an agenda, and many people do, I’m sure I’ll be assumed to have one too. All I’m suggesting, however, is that a little bit of consistency shouldn’t be too much to ask for.