In politics, and maybe in South Africa itself, there’s no greater test than participating in an election. You can make all the noise you like, but when those numbers start getting tallied and displayed on the results board in Pretoria, you can’t argue with them. The time for big debates and slogans is over.
So it must have been a very dispiriting feeling for the members of Black First Land First (BLF), who had faced numerous legal challenges and major hostility from enemies on all sides just to remain on the ballot. They also claimed to not have enough money to pay their R605,000 deposit fees to the IEC, but they scraped the money together somehow anyway.
But by the end of the elections week they had nothing to show for any of it.
When it becomes obvious just hours into the count that you’re not only not getting a seat in any province or in parliament, but you’ve also lost all your deposit money and all the cash you spent on posters and rallies, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I don’t know what drives smaller parties to keep doing it in election after election. Hope, I guess, is a powerful thing, along with all the stories politicians tell themselves about who they are and what they offer the country.
I thought they would do a bit better. But party leader Andile Mngxitama’s nearly comically over-the-top brand of racial politics didn’t strike the nerve I thought it would. There are – perhaps – just not as many black people around who feel there shouldn’t be white people around as I thought there were – along with all the other reasons someone might have for voting BLF.
The BLF was tested and found wanting, and in future we will have to report on it for what it is: a small party on the fringes of politics. The elections seemed to prove President Cyril Ramaphosa correct when he’d once called Mngxitama “a lone voice in the wilderness” after Mngxitama caused outrage that made global headlines when he threatened he would kill five white people – and their dogs and cats – for every black person killed in a supposed turf war involving billionaire Johann Rupert.
Then to add to the BLF’s woes, just before the elections they were found guilty in the Equality Court of hate speech for using the slogan “Land or Death”.
They were ordered to apologise, to remove the phrase from all their materials, and even stood the risk of prosecution. They said they would appeal the judgment handed down by a magistrate, and did so earlier this week.
The only big surprise was that the lawyers who were assisting them in their application were from the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), an NGO formed in 1994 to protect – well – freedom of expression.
It was a remarkable and admirable practical demonstration of standing on principle. For the FXI to support the BLF when they are political pariahs with few friends left in this country must not have been easy, and certainly not a popular thing to do.
The great old liberal slogan popularly attributed to Voltaire – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – is easy to utter, but not so easy to live out. The FXI is doing so, on principle, and is defending not just the BLF, but the very limits of freedom of expression itself. I assume the institute is not doing it because it likes the BLF but simply because it doesn’t consider the phrase “Land or Death” hate speech.
When you consider that it was the BLF using these words, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they were calling for war, or were inciting their followers to cause harm – which is how the magistrate interpreted it.
You could interpret “Land or death” to mean “Give me land or I will kill you.” But you could just as easily also interpret it to mean that the BLF themselves are willing to die, or be killed, for their belief that black people should own the land in South Africa. So those three words are open to interpretation and are an incarnation of a slogan that has in any case existed in various forms in most places on earth throughout human history.
“Give me liberty or give me death,” (or something along those lines) has been said in one way or the other by any group perceiving itself occupied or threatened by another. It’s what the Celts would have told the Romans in 100BC, or what the Greeks told the Persians in 490BC.
Mngxitama’s threat to kill white people and their pets would probably have stood a better chance of being declared hate speech, but that’s not for me to decide, and that’s not what is before the courts now. I’ve read the FXI’s submission on behalf of the party and their argument in favour of overturning the hate speech ruling is pretty strong.
I don’t know what the high court will decide. I’m not a fan of the phrase “Land or Death” myself, and to me it doesn’t make South Africa a better place. Of course we’d be better off without such rhetoric in our society, but to call it hate speech is not only inaccurate, it sets the bar too low for when cases of actual hate speech, as clearly defined in the constitution, occur.
It also creates precedent that shrinks what people are free to say in our country – so kudos to the FXI for standing up for what they believe, and for defending the kinds of freedoms that people really did die for in this country when they told the repressive and expression-limiting, censorship-loving apartheid regime: “Give me freedom, or give me death.”