Words we are not allowed to use: Who decides?

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Crude words carry a price: Using the k-word in South Africa today to refer to black people can lead to legal action. In the picture, Vicki Momberg at her trial for abusing black policemen who tried to help her

WHAT SHOULD we do about the k-word? Flight crew evicted a woman from a flight about to take off from Johannesburg to Durban two weeks ago, after she used the word in an sms to refer to the black captain and passengers, and another passenger noticed it and complained to the crew. The woman, Alochna Moodley from Midrand, admitted it was wrong, but protested that the other passenger, Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza, invaded her privacy by reading her sms. She reportedly lost her job at her company as a result. Mabuza later said that although he forgave her after she made a public apology, he still planned to open a charge of crimen injuria (wilful injury) against her.

This follows another case when Vicki Momberg a white, former real estate agent was sentenced to an effective two years in prison for a racist tirade in 2016. She was found guilty of crimen injuria, after she had lashed out at a black police officer who helped her after a smash-and-grab incident in Johannesburg. In a video clip that went viral, she complained about the “calibre of blacks” in Johannesburg. She used the k-word 48 times. In sentencing her, the magistrate said the policemen who assisted her were in their uniform ready to serve, and Momberg’s slurs stripped them of their dignity. There was widespread public support for her sentencing.

The controversial word goes way back in South African history, and was once common among sections of the white population to refer to black people. To South African ears, it is profoundly insulting, implying that the person referred to is inferior, uncultured and subject to the power of the word’s user. Colonialism and apartheid’s cruel spirit embodied in a word.

It appears in important literature, for example through the mouth of a clearly racist Oom Schalk Lourens, a complicated character in a racial country created by one of the country’s admired writers, Herman Charles Bosman. Lourens says: “I could never understand why (G-d) made the ‘k’… and the rinderpest”

The k-word has a close cousin in the United States in the insulting n-word, which has long evoked emotional reactions. In February, two books regarded as literary classics – the Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, depicting racial injustice in Alabama, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain dealing with slavery in pre-Civil War America, which contains offensive language by racist characters – were removed from school syllabuses in Minnesota over fears their use of racial slurs would upset black students. Both books have been lauded over the years as anti-racist, although set in racially loaded contexts.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the decision, saying the books use hurtful language “that has oppressed people over 200 years.” But free speech organisations criticised it, with the National Coalition Against Censorship saying rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for dialogue to teach students to confront racism. It’s like banning Charles Dickens for portraying Fagin, the Jew.

The k-word and n-word have been red flags to a bull in South Africa and the United States. Now, in some quarters, including South Africa, a new word has been added: the z-word (Zionist), which has taken on almost as insulting a meaning when mouthed by virulently anti-Israel or anti-Semitic groups. How long will this list of no-nos become?

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ decision last week to lay criminal charges for hate speech against three men who posted violent Whatsapp messages against Zionists and Jews, saying the Holocaust will be a picnic compared to what they are going to do to them, will test free speech boundaries. Should those men be punished for hate speech, or are their utterances legitimate political discourse?

This country is early in the process of defining its red lines on speech. EFF leader Julius Malema, a firebrand political figure, uses militant racial statements against whites and Indians, such as accusations that “the majority of Indians are racists,” and barbs against other groups such as coloureds – should it be allowed? In many western countries, such utterances by a politician would end his political career. Crude words, when repeated often enough, tend to provoke violent actions by reckless people. Malema is a potential Mussolini-in-the-making, and dangerous.

The topic tends to become irrational. But confronting it is a necessary process in clarifying post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the reputed banning of the children’s novel Black Beauty during apartheid because censors didn’t want the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ on the same page? Some scholars refute this, but whatever the case, the last thing we need now is to go back to that crazy mindset.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

 

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Is Malema South Africa’s Trump?

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Sounds of populism: Julius Malema (right) is greeted by cheering supporters during launch of the EFF manifesto at Orlando Stadium, Soweto, in May 2016

BY the time this column is read by many people the American elections will be over and the next United States president will have been chosen – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The contempt for Trump by many is epitomised by Israeli peace activist and politician Uri Avnery, who said even if Trump had not said all the reckless things he has uttered, there was one overriding reason to reject him: “A sound. A sound I carry in my ears since my early childhood in Germany. The sound of hysterical crowds screaming after every sentence of the Leader.”

Jewish history tells where populist leaders can take people. Ironically, this column appears on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938, paramilitary forces and German civilians, motivated by the charismatic Adolf Hitler, vandalized synagogues, Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed Jews.

In South African politics, the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema evokes the sounds Avnery talks about when he addresses masses of his red-garbed followers, or when he and his party members behave like thugs in Parliament. On Monday he addressed EFF supporters after his appearance in the Newcastle Magistrate’s Court, charged with contravention of the 1956 Riotous Assemblies Act for calling on black people to illegally occupy vacant land around the country. In June this year he told supporters that white people can’t claim ownership of land because it belongs to the country’s black African majority.

He said: “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people‚ at least for now… The rightful owners of the land are black people. No white person is a rightful owner of the land here in South Africa and the whole of the African continent.”

Predictably, other political parties reacted angrily: The Democratic Alliance said Malema’s violent language had no place in South Africa’s constitutional democracy; Freedom Front Plus chairman Pieter Groenewald said Malema’s comments are “hate speech” and created the potential for civil war.

At this point in South African politics, when a wide spectrum of people are desperate to get rid of President Jacob Zuma, Malema’s conduct is tolerated for political expediency, because he is also demanding Zuma’s ouster in a dramatic way.

His aspirations reach sky-high. One hears wry comments about “President Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office. A 2014 performance by celebrated satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” featured a Malema–like doll receiving advice from Hitler on his path to power. The show traversed South African history, providing disturbing analogies between early 1930s Germany and South Africa today. Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the Jews.’ Hitler appealed to millions of Germans who had no jobs after the First World War. Malema appeals to millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Black anger against white domination and land theft is justified. One only needs to go back to the Natives Land Act of 1913 which allocated about 7 per cent of arable land to blacks, leaving the more fertile land for whites and introducing territorial segregation into legislation for the first time since Union in 1910. Or apartheid’s Group Areas Act which allowed blacks to live only in designated black areas. To rectify these immoral laws’ consequences requires a legal and fair land restoration process. Malema’s utterances, however, are racist and if followed up could indeed provoke civil war.

Donald Trump’s offensive comments in the American presidential race about Mexicans, Muslims, migrants, women, and others feeds into the resurgence of jingoism and bigotry worldwide. The sounds evoked by hysterical, cheering followers of populists like Malema and Trump ultimately threatens everyone.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)