Why is apartheid denialism in South Africa not a crime? More to the point, why is apartheid denialism not even mentioned in the bill coming up in parliament on Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech, writes AYESHA FAKIE. (Parliament has since withdrawn the Bill for comment following a change in Committee leadership).
The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute defined apartheid a crime against humanity in 2002, rightly making South Africa’s white ethno-nationalist horror take its place alongside other systematic global regime-led terrors seen in the annals of international justice. Yet in the physical, psychological and juridical confines of the nation state we call South Africa, far right extremists and other historical revisionists propagate lies and myths about apartheid and the scourge of white hegemony’s role in South Africa.
Germany has famously made Holocaust denialism a crime on the deep reflection, by the international community and Germany itself, of the latter’s role in the genocides and war crimes the Germans are infamous for. It is an acknowledgment of the genocidal crimes and wounds inflicted by Germany on its various victims, especially Jewish people, and a recognition that the physical and psychosocial nation state needs to never forget, never go back. These laws are still in effect even 70 plus years after 1945; even Twitter is bound by different rules and moderation there in being compelled to clamp down on Holocaust and Nazi revisionism which attempts to garner sympathy in the name of Hitler, Goebbels and their modern day successors in the far-right white nationalist cottage industry seemingly poised to become a global multinational spanning Eastern Europe, South Africa and the USA. (You know the names, I choose not to type them out – deplatforming them from their internet soapboxes is how we pull back the norms of civil space, and it should be a lesson to media houses here and internationally to do the same).
But what about freedom of speech? Centrists and liberals, especially cis het white men but increasingly anyone bathed in the luxurious ignorance of privilege, counter any arguments against deplatforming, making apartheid denialism a crime or banning the apartheid flag by throwing out that quote, wrongly ascribed to Voltaire (it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall writing about Voltaire), about ‘disapproving of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it’. This exact scene played out when that pseudo intellectual – a former strategic advisor in the Trump White House – and itinerant grifter among the neo-nazi populist circus of “civilised” western nations – being banned from the New Yorker Festival 2018. And a similar scene played out when eNCA journalist Nickolaus Bauer threw out a Noam Chomsky (of all people) quote to silence critics who called him out for, in effect, defending apartheid denialists.
No sooner after the New Yorker decision went public were the wails from people who never suffer from the harm inflicted by ignorant, race exclusionary, white nationalist, eliminationist, hate speech thundering through the chattering classes. “What about a marketplace of ideas!?” “Well if his arguments are so poor why not counter them with better ones!?” “Freedom of speech means we all have a right to…..” and on and on and on. I’m sure the Bauers of the world were readying their “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all” again, probably more so when calls like mine for apartheid denialism to be criminalised are made.
This is tiresome for many reasons. No moral precept exists in absolutes. Any deeper familiarity with philosophy and political theory beyond soundbites will leave people arguing from authority trying to appear knowledgeable with the realisation that the egg on their faces is there because they walked into it. Context is always instructive. And my call to make apartheid denialism criminal via inclusion in the hate speech bill is based on not only the crime against humanity that was apartheid but how the veins and arteries of that still living crime fractures us today as it carves up our land into white haves, and black have nots and will never haves.
Living, working, just being in this place called South Africa is a daily battle for the majority South Africans, most Black South Africans – the peoples directly attacked by apartheid’s venom – to claim some semblance of living and dignity. And for revisionists to – in living memory of apartheid – gallingly talk without penalty or consequence via apartheid denialism and nostalgia is a compounding of a crime against humanity, an affront, an insult by people who benefit directly from the privilege of race and economics that apartheid bequeathed them.
All for some fear of imagined loss of privilege and a typical response of ur-Fascism: where the ingroup is simultaneously strong and weak, oppressor and victim. The Afrikaner exemplifies the false narrative constructed about an ancient place for white men’s land in an “empty” Africa, to hold off the fear of the “white primitive”. What’s worse than any individual penalty not being a recourse is that it moves accepted discourse away from historical fact, it rewrites history, it is the slow creep of appropriating narratives to fit new hate, new racism, new exclusion.
As POC our lives are not something for a benign debate. It may be for those who never face oppression but not for us. It is about our existence, our ability to live in freedom. Seeing apartheid revisionists yak away with impunity is jarring, a kick in the gut, a feeling of ‘not this shit again’ because we have seen it before. We still see it today. For centrists and liberals throwing out notions about a marketplace of ideas is a failure to see how some ideas are backed by existing white supremacist structures and thus by default given more prominence than others. It is failure to recognise that revisionists on the far right are not interested in debating ideas, that they do not approach these debates in good faith but to use platforms to spread hate, fallacies and long-debunked pseudo-science on race and progress. But more instructive, it is a failure to see POC as people, where a debate with a white nationalist is by default a debate about whether we have a right to exist. That is not ground a civil and modern democratic society should even contemplate, never mind have.
For those apartheid othered, excluded, attacked and abused, for those of us who survived, and those still trying to survive, hearing apartheid denialism is a smack in the face. It is society telling us we don’t matter. It is telling us it can happen to us again. It is telling us to know our place. Seeing the apartheid flag, hearing Die Stem even – especially acted out in performative victimhood by washed out entertainers – is an exercise in social PTSD. No idealised norm of freedom of speech, especially in its absolutist sense as if it is given to us from on high by an omniscient being, is worth that price.
Ayesha Fakie is a regular contributor on social justice issues in the media and has written on racism, privilege, misogyny, colourism and LGBTQI+ issues, among others.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons