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Where are the limits to free speech?

Jon Qwelane and Richard Catto have at least three things in common.

For a start, they’re great at generating insults. So I’m quite fond of both of them from a purely selfish point of view; the more material the merrier. Secondly, they’re both good at pissing people off, and thirdly, neither of them sets much store by the Human Rights Commission. Here’s Qwelane defending himself after having written about the “rapid degradation of values and traditions” by the tolerance of homosexuals:

“And by the way, please tell the Human Rights Commission that I totally refuse to withdraw or apologise for my views. I will write no letters to the Commission either, explaining my thoughts.”

(Presumably Vodacom is thrilled about the inadvertent juxtaposition of its brand with this repulsive little piece of bigotry, complete with a cartoon that utterly endorses Qwelane’s antediluvian views.) Catto for his part believes that Julius Malema and Zwelanzima Vavi should not have been hauled before the HRC, because there should be no limits on free speech:

Do you wish to allow people who hate you to be able to make use of legal loopholes to string you up because you expressed something that you truly believe but which the government has decided you may not?

I vote that South Africa adopts the US model of Free Speech and amends our Constitution appropriately. The cost to outlaw “hate speech” is too high a price to pay for our individual freedoms.

Do not let them take away your Freedom!

Based on this, it is not unfair to assume that Richard Catto won’t be joining the Facebook group stated in protest against Qwelane’s article, which already boasts nearly 1 600 members and counting four days after having been started.

These days, of course, you haven’t arrived until you’re the subject of a Facebook group. And that’s partly where Catto and Qwelane are quite different. Or at least, the response to them is. Qwelane has been widely deplored for his controversial attitudes; it is likely, despite his bravado in the Sunday Sun piece, that he will be censored in some way.

In contrast, Richard Catto has operated largely below the radar screen of popular public discourse. The only people who seem to pay much attention to him are the troglodytes on sites like SA Sucks. Somebody even started an entire blog devoted to Catto, though, somewhat disappointingly, only bothered to make one post. Even my own stalker had more stamina than that.

I’ve wondered about this for some time. Without passing judgment on Richard’s writing, I can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t succeeding in stoking widespread ire. The man is an ardent believer in free speech, and he certainly practises what he preaches. So why are people not more offended? Why does Jon Qwelane get a Facebook group, but not Richard Catto? Is there no equality in this world?

Is it because the people he succeeds in offending are largely unrepentant racists, and therefore thoroughly unsympathetic? Is it because he writes for a blog, not a serious media outlet, and so the rules are different? (Appalling views are expressed on the Friends of Jacob Zuma website all the time, and nobody gets too worried about that. And the net is host to all sorts of stuff that would never pass muster in an even vaguely mainstream media outlet.)

Is it because it is okay for a white guy to be rude and insulting about other white guys?

I’ve watched John Vlismas stand on a stage in front of a huge audience and get away with saying the most appalling things about Afrikaners, because everyone knows that he is a professional shit-stirrer, a jester who gets to lance the boil of South African race relations in a hygienically controlled environment. The Afrikaners in the audience chuckled along with him. They were in on the joke; they recognised, subconsciously, that, by laughing at it, they endorsed their own legitimacy.

So it’s complicated. It all depends, as Julius Malema would argue, on the context.
That is tricky, because, in the course of collecting South African insults, I’ve noticed that this is a country where people die every day for the pettiest of reasons. Here, you can be murdered for calling someone a Shangaan (as was the case in a shooting in a Klerksdorp tavern in 2005). Or, as it happens, for being a lesbian.

I’d just like to know why so many people are offended by someone who says we should kill for Jacob Zuma, or that giving homosexuals the right to marry means we’ll be marrying goats next, but not by someone who has (allegedly) said that Afrikaners are sordid, disease-infected bugs who should be persecuted into extinction.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.