Following the social media circulation of a video in which a white woman lashes out at black police officers using racial slurs, the Zuma administration is proposing harsher penalties against hate speech. Proposed legislation would move hate speech cases from civil courts to criminal courts in South Africa. Currently punishable only by fines, “racist utterances and many other incidents of vicious crimes perpetrated under the influence of racial hate…has necessitated further measures,” according to the minister of justice. If the proposed legislation becomes law, a first-time offender could face three years in prison and a repeat offender up to ten years.
The proposed legislation is controversial. Some critics characterize it as a distraction from the real problems of South Africa. The New York Times quotes Joel Modiri, a University of Pretoria lecturer: “here you have a black-majority society that is essentially demanding protection from a white minority. It’s revealing the deeper problem that you have a majority in this country that is fundamentally powerless.”
The New York Times comments that the proposed legislation resembles that in Britain, Canada, France, and Germany, but not in the United States, where the First Amendment protects freedom of virtually all expression.
The backlash against the white woman’s tirade centers on her use of the word kaffir. The word, of Arab origin, was commonly used in the in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a non-pejorative reference to black people. But, especially under apartheid, it acquired powerful, negative connotations with the black community but also across the racial spectrum. Now, like the ‘n-word’ in the United States, in South Africa the word is rarely uttered or even spelled-out in print.
“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” But in a South Africa still wounded by apartheid and centuries of white supremacy, words can have profound impact on both individuals and society as a whole.