The new year has seen many social media users experience highly provocative and sometimes offensive views filtering through their newsfeeds. The turbulence experienced on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in the first few days of 2016 have once again highlighted the extremely fine line on which we as South Africans balance when we exercise our constitutional right to freedom of speech.

How do we balance freedom of speech in South Africa?
Freedom of expression has been enshrined in the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa because of its importance in upholding and maintaining democracy. The right to freedom of expression is afforded in a varying amount of strength and protection among democratic countries. In our own system, Section 16 of our current Constitution clearly outlines what freedom of expression entails, including the right to freedom of artistic creativity and the freedom to impart information and ideas. Section 16 (2), however, prevents freedom of speech from being granted absolute power by stating that any speech which constitutes propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or which advocates hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, or alternatively incites to cause harm, is excluded from the constitutional protection afforded to this right. Subsequent legislation drafted under our constitutional dispensation further criminalises hate speech, as seen in legislation such as the Equality Act which prohibits hate speech, as well as the dissemination and publication of information which is unfairly discriminating.

Twitter’s trigger
On 2 January 2016, South Coast estate agent Penny Sparrow posted a comment on social media where she compared crowds of black South African beach-goers she had seen on New Year’s Day to “monkeys”, ending her statement by saying that she would address black South Africans as “monkeys” from then onwards. Sparrow’s comments soon triggered responses across Twitter and was trending shortly afterwards, leading to a Twitter storm that caused even more carnage as it progressed.

Provocative or problematic?
Sparrow’s comments have placed a spotlight on numerous social media users who have landed themselves in hot water for publishing their views on race recently. One of the first casualties after Sparrow was Gauteng government employee Velaphi Khumalo who posted that white South Africans should be treated “as Hitler did to the Jews” and that future generations should be “used as garden fertiliser”. Next to fall was Nicole de Klerk, an employee of a talent agency in Cape Town, who was exposed on social media after using a derogative racial slur.
Perhaps the most notable case brought to the attention of South Africans this year was that of radio presenter Gareth Cliff who was dismissed from Idols SA as a judge following his comments made in the wake of the Sparrow saga. Cliff responded to comments regarding the racial debate surrounding Sparrow by saying that people didn’t “understand free speech at all”, which led to a backlash on Twitter with calls to boycott Idols.
Controversy has also surrounded a tweet posted by Standard Bank economist, Chris Hart, after he tweeted that despite the end of apartheid, “the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred toward minorities”.
Another provocative opinion piece posted in response to the Sparrow saga was entitled “Why do white people despise blacks?” written by EFF leader Julius Malema. This piece has, however, been more readily received as an expression of an opinion in comparison to comments which clearly constitute hate speech.

The implications for those in the spotlight of social media.
While the various parties contributing to the turbulence on social media over the last month have issued apologies or defended their comments, there have been varying consequences depending on the perceived seriousness of each matter.
For instance, Hart has been suspended from Standard Bank and faced a disciplinary committee on 22 January. De Klerk was fired from her job with immediate effect.
Legal battles could be on the horizon for Sparrow and Khumalo after it was confirmed by ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa in a statement released on 21 January that the ANC had laid charges against them. In addition to these charges, Sparrow was stripped of her DA membership while Khumalo was served with a suspension letter, pending disciplinary action. Times Live, in their article published on 8 January 2016, also confirmed that the Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation Department of Gauteng had not suspended Khumalo’s pay in a statement given by the department’s spokesperson, Nomazwe Ntlokwane. Cliff took M-Net to court on charges of defamation and unfair dismissal. Cliff has since won his case in the Johannesburg high court and has been re-instated as a judge on Idols.

Social media: helper or hindrance?
Social media has played an instrumental role in exposing the areas of South African society where those disseminating hatred have been uncovered on a broad platform. However, it can be argued that social media has helped facilitate “witch hunts” and has increased racial tensions by revealing previously hidden views. This has been seen in a matter taken to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) by the FW de Klerk Foundation, who have brought over 45 social media posts forward after reviewing these posts as constituting some of “the most virulent and dangerous racism – expressed in the most extreme and violent language”. In an article reported by News24 on 15 January 2016, the Foundation also explained that they were concerned “about recent statements in the media and social media that constitute hurtful racist remarks”.
South Africans must remember how fortunate we are to live in a society that protects and values freedom of expression, keeping in mind that we have a tremendous obligation to refrain from disseminating hate when we express ourselves. The right to freedom of speech is not only a right that South Africans have fought for, but a right that they deserve.

Illustration: Jaco Stroebel

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