South African free speech advocate GUY BERGER on xenophobia.

guy berger


Guy Berger was appointed UNESCO’s Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development in 2011 after some 30 years as a journalist and journalism educator in South Africa. Cherian George interviewed him in Thimphu, Bhutan, on 11 May 2012.


How successful has South Africa been in transitioning to a state where race can be discussed in a fairly civilised way?

Interestingly, under the old racist system, there was actually hate speech legislation, which said that nobody should foster unhappiness between the races or something like that, which of course was to prevent criticism of white supremacy. The current Constitution gives freedom of speech, but says that it does not extend to hate speech. And there is a law called the Equality Law, which goes even further.

The interesting thing is that neither of these has much impact. There’s a lot of racial slurring that takes place. Slurs against black people are more in private. There have been some cases where white people have been taken to court because of e-mails that are racist. They have been found guilty and fined and so on.

There has been a lot of criticism of white people from black people in public. And, basically, white privilege is still intact, so there is real foundation for it. There is a freedom song, which says, “Kill the Boer” – literally it means the Afrikaans-speaking white farmer, but historically it meant kill the oppressor. This is a very popular song still, and ambitious youth of the ruling party have been singing this thing. In fact, their leader has been convicted for singing it – and he continues to sing it. It is a very militant song, and he has been convicted for hate speech.

I think everybody realises that, literally, it is incitement, but symbolically it is really about politics.

So it is unlikely to have the effect of inciting violence?

Yes. Look, there is a lot of violent crime, but not for reasons of racial hatred. Of course, many of white people say we were attacked because of this guy’s song, but the motive was criminal and not racial hatred as such.

So it is quite a complex thing, and now there is a new dynamic, which in a way is more serious, and that is xenophobia.

Against immigrants from the rest of Africa?

Yes. As far as speech goes, there’s been for many years a popular derogatory term among black South Africans vis a vis black immigrants, which is makwerekwere. It’s like nigger, in a way. Of course it’s very much resented by the victims of this.

It’s a classic case of competition among working class unemployed people for scarce resources. So there is this ideology that these foreigners are taking our women, that they are stealing our jobs. The reality of the matter is that desperate refugees come to work for much less than what South Africans are prepared to work for. There’s a lot of casual labour: people wait on the side of the road and a contractor will come and give them a day’s work. On one side will be the South Africans, they are offered a rate and they’ll say no. On the other side will be the Zimbabweans and they will say yes.

Xenophobia in South Africa

More than 20 years after the end of Apartheid, south africawhite privilege remains entrenched in South Africa. The country’s dream of a post-racial society has also been set back by a spate of xenophobic attacks by South African blacks on poor black immigrants from other African countries. For more information and resources on this issue, click here.

They are more desperate.

Yes. And of course you’ll have this real class resentment. Two-three years ago there were these incredibly violent attacks against foreigners. I think media coverage inadvertently produced a copycat effect.

There was this resentment that was felt individually. But when it became a phenomenon, when an entire ghetto purges foreign people and burns them and people become double refugees, and that’s shown on television, the images are really vivid – shacks burning, people fleeing – and so anybody who is really pissed off with life sees this, and, well, you know…

They realise they are not alone…

Yes, they feel, let’s make this a national thing. I did have some discussions with journalists about this. Obviously, you have to cover the story, but do you really have to cover it in this particular way, where basically you have a full screen of flames and people running away. Can’t you run it as a small window, and show some pictures of the police taking action against the perpetrators, so that it’s clear that there is a price to pay if South Africans are going to become violent towards foreigners.

How did the journalists respond to your criticism?

I think they appreciated it; they hadn’t really thought through this thing, about the possible implications. They had thought that by showing this stuff they would sensitise the public.

They thought they were showing their disapproval by reporting it in that way?

Yes. And the government was really absent without leave. There was no response from the government to try and stop this. In fact, it was civil society and some individuals like Winnie Mandela and the church – they were mobilised like never before to try and stop this. And they were mobilised by the same pictures on television that were inspiring further attacks.

And then there was another case. In the past few years there has been this explosion of tabloid journalism in South Africa. There is a paper that came from nowhere to become the biggest paper, selling more than half a million copies a day. It’s called the Daily Sun. This paper decided to cover the xenophobia with a little logo that they ran in every edition, “War on Aliens”.

Oh my!

One NGO took them to the press council and the press council actually threw the case out, which was disgusting.

Press Council

The press council is the custodian of the South African Press Code. Visit the press council’s site here.

daily sun

This wasn’t seen as an instance of hate speech? It was only taken to the press council and not to the courts?

Yes. The state was, as I said, more or less derelict in its duty. And I think the kind of NGOs that are doing this don’t want to be seen as attacking press freedom, so maybe that’s why it wasn’t taken further than the press council.

This paper had really been exploiting these stereotypes against foreigners. Eventually they themselves got a bit worried because it was getting so out of hand. More than 60 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were made refugees. It was a major crisis. So, they themselves began to turn, and they removed the logo. But they didn’t express any contrition though they did try later to moralise against the attacks.

There were some terrible cases, and even some South Africans who couldn’t prove they were South Africans were attacked, because you couldn’t really tell. South Africans had been in exile in these countries, they had been hosted and supported and given shelter, and now they were attacking people who were often financial and economic refugees but also political refugees.

It was a similar thing with phone-in programmes. People phoning in and saying we’ve got to get rid of these foreigners and so on. The phone-in hosts weren’t really party to it, but also didn’t know how to deal with it, because it’s a live discussion.

There’s an elite newspaper called the Mail and Guardian which is a very progressive liberal paper; the best investigative paper in the country; the opposition, alternative paper in the old days. They have an online blog-by-invitation site, which is called “Thought Leader”. They screen who’s going to blog, because they want quality blogs. There are comments on these blogs, and they screen the comments as well.

I had a student, a Zambian student, who was really freaked out by these xenophobic acts. She was reading the Thought Leader, and felt that the comments were really xenophobic. She started to research this thing, because this was a moderated online forum, in English, from the middle class. The perpetrators weren’t participating in this online forum, it was other people.

More in the elite?

More in the elite. The prejudice coming through – they were saying things like, these vigilantes are only doing what the government should have done a long time ago, clearing people out; you can’t blame them, the government should have really regulated immigration much better. Basically justifying, legitimising the attacks and sometimes using derogatory words and stereotypes about immigrants.

She went to interview the paper and said, first of all there is the constitution and the law which you subscribe to; and your comments policy says you won’t allow hate speech; and yet you’re letting this stuff through.

They gave a number of arguments. They said, number one, the volume of comments is such that they cannot possibly moderate it all. Number two, they expect the public to complain if there is really bad stuff – and they didn’t get complaints. Number three, they thought sometimes these comments were worth airing because the nature of online is that there would be immediate rebuttals.

So they were basically trusting the marketplace of ideas to work.

Yes. They said some, OK, we shouldn’t have let that through. But some stuff they deliberately let through because they thought, although it’s illegal and immoral, they wanted to put it into circulation in the more liberal community of commentators.

And then the other argument was that, if they didn’t let this stuff through, it would go to some extremist sites where it would just become an echo chamber for extremists.

I thought these were very interesting comments, and there is some merit in them. Partially they were taking some responsibility, but partially they said the responsibility was on the community of participants to either complain and ask to take down, or to rebut.

In their columns and editorials did they have a clearer line against this sort of speech?

Absolutely. And in fact a lot of the blogs themselves were condemning it. It was the citizens who were commenting, some of them, who were extremely unpleasant about it.

Despite the law and despite the constitution do you let the stuff out because then at least it’s got an outlet and it can be dealt with. But what happens when the perpetrators themselves begin to get involved in this. What if this particular populist guy wasn’t singing “Kill the Boer” metaphorically, but much more in a Mau Mau way.

A call to arms…

A call to arms thing. But if you shout fire in a crowded theatre but nobody’s going to stampede then it’s not really such a problem. So the context is everything.

And what do you think the context is in South Africa? Overall has the freedom to do this made the situation worse? Looking back at the spate of xenophobia, have we overestimated the wisdom of the market?

The tabloid newspaper which is popular with the masses may have played a negative role. That media which is read by the liberal middle class is fine: it’s mobilising concerned civil society to take action. And then there’s the public service media: it brought home to concerned people what it was like, but gave inspiration to others to join in the xenophobic violence.

There wasn’t coverage that could really have a different effect, for example, publicising Winnie Mandela, who is a popular icon, saying this is out of order. Or having at least a statement from the head of police making the right noises. I think that is the kind of thing the media could have done a lot more of.

Whether the journalistic community learnt anything from it, I don’t know. It’s hard to say.

Let me ask you about Unesco. Freedom of expression has limitations, but Unesco’s work tends to emphasise the freedoms more than the limits. Why is this, considering that it’s so clear that bad stuff is happening partly as a result of over-free expression?

I think it’s because the predominant problem in the world is less abuse of speech than suppression of speech. It depends on how you understand the influence of media. In a lot of hate cases, it’s very difficult to pin them on media coverage as such. Media can foster a bit of the climate, but there are other triggers. That’s my personal view.

I don’t know whether that’s part of the price you pay for having free speech, which is that some stuff will come up that is not palatable. Whether it has such a negative effect as in Rwanda – that was pretty exceptional. In Rwanda, the radio station intensified and actually orchestrated the violence. It was actually an organisational weapon, a bit different from media coverage.

Even the “War on Aliens” branding didn’t reach that extent?

It would be interesting to research how readers understood that thing. It may not have been read exactly in that way.

I’m not denying the influence of media, but I don’t think we should be so concerned that media is such a hyperdermic needle that it’s got to be controlled, controlled, controlled, which even well-meaning governments like to do.

Ultimately the antidote is to try to promote media- and information-literacy, which is basically to say to people, if you come across hate speech on the internet, don’t leave it, rebut it. The majority of people, we hope, are not into hatred or incitement to violence. Get people mobilised, not just to be observers or spectators or consumers of media but to participate.