South Africa’s 1994 “miracle” ended centuries of legislated racial discrimination. But the heads and hearts of South Africans were not miraculously wiped clean in that seminal moment.
The racism constructed during those centuries and passed down through them is still very much a part of our society today, along with the racist acts and speech it provokes. The question we must now debate as a nation is: how do we navigate our way towards the non-racial society envisaged by our Constitution?
Unquestionably, we must deal with the structural conditions that allow race-based inequality to persist: unequal access to education, earning and ownership opportunities. The progress we make on this long-term project will steadily chip away at the racism that is so entrenched in our society. But we cannot just wait for hate-fueled incidents to slowly diminish over time while we claw our way to a more just society. Through effective legislation, we can decisively prevent and combat harmful acts and speech fueled by racial and other forms of discrimination.
Almost all South Africans agree that in the interest of social solidarity, human dignity and nation building, we have to draw a line between freedom of expression and hate speech. The ANC’s Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill (“Hate Crimes Bill”) currently making its way through Parliament supposedly endeavours to do just that but draws the line in the wrong place. In its purported attempt to deter racism and other forms of discrimination, it oversteps the mark, venturing – whether by mistake or design – into the dangerous and unconstitutional realm of censorship and authoritarianism.
The DA has produced an amendment bill which seeks to strengthen existing legislation to “give it teeth”.