34 degrees south: history as insult

Former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani could feel at home in the rough world of South African politics. President Obama, Giuliani says, has “a dilettante’s knowledge of history” because he believes that “bad things” happened during the Crusades. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, the Freedom Front Plus has laid a complaint of hate speech against President Jacob Zuma because he has said that bad things happened after Dutch colonial settlement at the Cape of Good Hope.

In one sense, this is politics as vaudeville. If Zuma is guilty of hate speech for criticizing colonialism, so also are swathes of history teachers, academics and public commentators for writing about the near obliteration of the Cape’s indigenous communities through the combination of guns, disease and land seizures. And Giuliani compounded his idiosyncratic interpretation of history by reviving the racial determinism of eugenics. It was impossible, he claimed, for him to be guilty of racism by stating that Obama did not “love America. Why? Because the Obama had a white mother.

President Obama responded to all this by declining to comment. It’s a pity that some here on the other side of the ocean did not follow his example.

The Cape Times hooked the Freedom Front Plus’s complaint to the Human Rights Commission to an ugly spat between a guest house owner, Jennifer Abrahams, and Sherri-Lynn Rigney, a potential guest. In taking exception to persistent enquiries about the quality of the accommodation, Jennifer called Sherri-Lynn “a typical Saartjie Baartman hottentot”.

As with Mayor Giuliani, a more considered appreciation of history would have been helpful here. “Hottentot” is certainly a term of racial abuse, coined by the Dutch colonial settlers whose probity the Freedom Front Plus wishes to defend. But Saartjie Baartman is an icon of repression and liberation: forcibly taken to Britain in the early nineteenth century and displayed in London as a fairground freak; her skeleton displayed for years in Paris by the Musee de L’Homme as a racial stereotype; her mortal remains finally repatriated to South Africa and formally buried after the intervention of Nelson Mandela.

This storm of insults and accusations was whipped up further by the Speaker of the National Assembly, who should of course be a model of neutrality and decorum, calling leader of the Economic Freedom Front Julius Malema a “cockroach”. This provided Jennifer Abrahams with a defence, of sorts. She responded to the persistent attempts of the Cape Times to make news of this story by telling its journalist: “If Baleka Mbete can call Julius Malema a cockroach, then I can call Sherri-Lynn Rigney a hottentot”. As with Rudolf Giuliani’s claim that white genes somehow immunize a person against a racial insult, we are here beyond the realm of reason.

But hate speech is an ever-widening mode of behaviour that must be taken seriously, and there are deeper implications behind these casually traded insults. For many, Speaker Baleka Mbete’s insult evokes the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutus were encouraged to massacre Tutsis. In one notorious case, the executives of a Rwandan radio station were convicted by a United Nations tribunal for repeatedly broadcasting encouragement for a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”. Given that the Economic Freedom Front has, among other radical policies, advocated the nationalisation of land, the association with genocide that could be read into the Speakers’ insult are apparent; she was quick to offer an unreserved apology.

For its part, the Freedom Front Plus is the direct successor of the white Afrikaner separatism that was the core ideology of apartheid. Its political power base is Orania, a whites-only settlement in a dusty corner of today’s South Africa that continues the dream of separate development. For the Freedom Front, President Zuma’s criticisms of the first Dutch colonial settlers at the Cape, some four hundred and fifty years ago, implies a policy to drive white Afrikaners from their land; again, the implication of a form of genocide. The irony here is that Orania – and therefore the continued political existence of the Freedom Front Plus – is protected by minority rights enshrined in the South African constitution. Both President Zuma and Julius Malema have been careful to visit and to express respect for the rights of self-determination.

What can be made of all this?

Firstly, words and their histories matter. Racial identities in South Africa, and the benefits and disadvantages that come with them, are as attenuated today as they were in 1994, when a large majority lined up to vote in the first democratic elections. Words, in turn, index associations with history and its interpretation: Giuliani’s implied endorsement of the Crusades is a considered and provocative insult to the Muslim world; any association with the Rwandan genocide will bring a chill to anyone touched by South Africa’s tendency to violent xenophobia; despite its constitutional protections, the white separatist dream of Orania is a tenuous existence.

Secondly, the role of the press matters. Reading that the Speaker of parliament has insulted the leaders of a political party is certainly news. So is a complaint to the Human Rights Commission against the President, however absurd. But an e-mail spat between a guest house owner and a guest as headline news in a national paper? Having comprehensively stirred this one up as a case of hate speech, the Cape Times announced, rather portentously, that it considering moderating on-line comments on its stories and not publishing those it believes to be offensive.

The newspaper could perhaps have applied this policy to Jennifer Abrahams’ intemperate and incoherent insults. That said, though, there is some fascination in wondering what kind of guest house she runs, given her unconventional approach to customer relations.

New York Times: “Giuliani: Obama Had a White Mother, So I’m Not a Racist”. 10 February 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/02/19/giuliani-obama-had-a-white-mother-so-im-not-a-racist/

Guardian: “Jacob Zuma under investigation for using hate speech”. 19 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/19/jacob-zuma-investigation-hate-speech

Cape Times” ‘If she said cockroach, I can say hottentot’”. 19 February 2015. http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/if-she-said-cockroach-i-can-say-hottentot-1.1820584#.VOoOG1OUdfw

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