The wave of protests that has swept across South African universities in recent times reflects the undercurrent sociopolitical tensions of the broader society. Universities, after all, are microcosms of society.
The university is, or should be, the bastion of the right to free expression in the promotion of democracy, and has a moral and ethical obligation to provide spaces for fierce debate and critical engagement. But the reality may be somewhat different with universities globally criticised as bastions of intolerance, privilege, conformism and censorship.
Protests at several campuses, including vocational and further education colleges, in the wake of the #Rhodes must fall movement have become increasingly violent. They are indicative of the discontent with the slow pace of change, referred to as transformation in the country. This means much more than a change of policies and speaks to deep transformation relating to apartheid history. It involves confronting South Africa’s colonial, racist past to redress the issues which still cause humiliation in institutions today.
This discontent relates to student access to higher education, student fees, accommodation, language policies and the curriculum which are all seen as exclusionary and part of the apartheid legacy.
Freedom of speech versus incitement
The right to freedom of expression will be severely tested on campuses as offensive speech shades into hate speech and inflames violence. Institutions must endeavour to create forums and avenues for vigorous and even more, not less, contentious debate. This may indeed bring extreme discomfort and polarise many. And of course universities will have to have policies in place for when offensive speech morphs into hate speech and incites violence.
Interesting research into the role of higher education institutions in preventing extremism suggests that there should not be excessive curbs on extremist speech.
Rather, it proposes, institutions should provide multiple platforms and diverse spaces for all views so that they can be challenged openly and publicly. The research also reveals that opportunities for students from various cultures to mix and debate is a deterrent to singular, narrow views.
If there are already policies in place against hate speech and incitement to violence, tighter controls and stricter measures tend to drive political dissent underground and have the potential to make it more explosive.
The challenge is where to draw the line
The South African constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, guarantees the right to express oneself freely.
But this freedom does not only extend to expressions we find comfortable or favourable, but to also those that shock, disturb and offend. The question then becomes: when does offensive speech shade into hate speech?
The constitution states that the right to freedom of expression does not extend to advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, or that constitutes “incitement to cause harm”.
As our democracy becomes more robust, South Africans are going to encounter more controversy, contestation and conflict - not less. People, especially those on social media, will have to brace themselves to handle communication that is increasingly disturbing and offensive.
A number of examples of offensive speech stand out.
The Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges was found guilty by the Human Rights Commission of “violent hate speech and racist” comments posted on her Facebook wall.
The derogatory utterances of King Goodwill Zwelithini against foreigners were blamed for sparking the most recent spate of deadly xenophobic violence. This case is being probed by the rights commission. A Nigerian rights group has also laid charges with the International Criminal Court against the Zulu King.
The President of the Student Representative Council at the University of the Witwatersrand was removed from office for posting his admiration for Hitler on Facebook. Although the university found his comments abhorrent, it decided that he had not breached the right to free speech as enshrined in the constitution.
Parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete came under fire after she referred to the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema as a “cockroach” at a meeting of the governing African National Congress, of which she is the national chairperson. After coming under attack for using language reminiscent of incitement in Rwanda before the genocide she unreservedly withdrew her remarks.
Why there is a need to tread carefully
Hate speech takes on a whole new meaning in fragile, volatile democracies like South Africa. Here, protests, strikes and disputes rapidly escalate into extreme violence, and even death.
The history of humanity is replete with narratives illustrating the role of political hate rhetoric in ethnocentrism, and even genocide. Glaring examples are the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Hate speech is often the precursor to the scapegoating, dehumanising and demonising of outgroups, especially minorities, and the escalation of violent attacks.
South African politicians are no different from politicians all over the world who use inflammatory speech to mobilise group solidarity in order to derogate outgroups. Donald Trump, the Republican running in the US presidential race, is the master of offensive, degrading speech.
Trump, too, has garnered popular support but this is where the comparison ends. South Africa, unlike the US, is still licking its wounds from a traumatic past. And it is still grappling with democracy. Politicians have a duty to exercise more caution.
Offensive speech, whether it is declared hate speech or not, has tremendous power. It generates complex human emotions which often have deep-rooted and traumatic significance in post-apartheid South Africa. These emotions can stir motives for revenge.
Institutions of higher learning need to find innovative ways and create multiple forums to stimulate critical debate and dialogue as part of constructive conflict engagement. This, after all, is their purpose, to develop global citizens and critical thinkers who champion human rights and defend democratic principles.