More chiefs, but where’s the service delivery?

September 30, 2010

I was given a little booklet by Statistics South Africa entitled Stats in Brief 2009, and a very useful little document is is too. Hardly bigger than a Kindle screen, it contains in its 200-odd pages a wealth of statistical data on South Africa, from economic statistics to tourism figures. All the data in this little book is also available on Statistics South Africa’s website, but the book format, with its ease of moving between pages/sets of data, somehow enables you to make connections that are much more difficult to detect while navigating the web. For journalists, it is a veritable treasure trove of potential stories.

For example:  on Page 64, you’ll find that there has been no virtually no job growth in the Eastern Cape province over the past nine years. Turn the page, and you’ll notice that there has been about 47% growth in one particular job category: legislators, senior officials and managers. Mmm. Thumb through to the section on municipal expenditure and – my, oh my – the Eastern Cape province spends more on municipal councillors’ remuneration than any other province save KwaZulu-Natal, which has about a third more people. In percentage terms, the Eastern Cape muncipalities devoted 4.4% of their expenditure to councillors’ salaries in 2008, compared with a mere 0.8% in Gauteng, and up from 2.8% in 2001. Now if service delivery only improved at a similar rate…

Kudos to Stats SA for making this sort of informaiton available in such a user-friendly format.


ANC’s Mantashe suggests the Press Ombudsman is biased. In fact, he’s been rather kind to the government.

July 7, 2010

African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has resurrected the idea of a statutory tribunal to police the media. According to a report in Business Day, he accused the media of “negativity” in their coverage of the ANC government and said the Press Ombudsman is unable to deal effectively with unethical journalism, which he claimed was “very prevalent”.

I don’t think we have to worry too much about this; a statutory media council would be too gross an infringement of media freeom to pass constitutional muster. Be that as it may, Mantashe should be called to account. What exactly does he mean by “negativity”? Reports about failures of service delivery? About corruption? And can he give examples to support his blanket statement that “self-regulation does not work”? Mantashe states that the current Ombudsman cannot fairly adjudicate complaints against the press because he is a former journalist, making him inherently biased. But is that the case? In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

I did a quick analysis of Press Ombudsman rulings over the past three years, and found only five cases in which the ANC, the government or a senior government official submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman. Two of those were upheld, two were partially upheld, and one was dismissed on appeal. Hardly evidence of pro-press bias!

If Mantashe and his party have genuine grievances about press coverage, perhaps they should make use of the Press Ombudsman’s complaints mechanism before declaring that it doesn’t work. They may just be surprised.


In defence of Julius Malema’s right to free speech

March 15, 2010

I believe in freedom of expression. Our Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression. That is why I cannot welcome the Equality Court’s ruling that Malema was guilty of hate speech when he commented on the young woman who had accused President Jacob Zuma of rape.

Please understand that I am not defending Malema. I am defending his right to freedom of expression, which is also mine and yours and which means nothing if it does not include the right to say things that offend other people.

This is what Malema said: “Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast and ask for taxi money. In the morning, that lady requested breakfast and taxi money.”

He made his comment after Zuma had been acquitted of rape – so in the eyes of the law, the woman is not a rape survivor –  but the words are nonetheless grossly offensive in the context of a society in which rape occurs frequently and survivors who get their day in court are often called upon to justify their sexual behaviour. 

But do his words constitute hate speech?

Hate speech is defined in the Constitution as “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm” (my italics). Malema’s words were undoubteldy undoubtedly hurtful to many people. They may, at a stretch, be construed as “advocacy of hatred” based on gender. But did they constitute incitement to cause harm? I think not. And so, offensive though the words were to our sensibilities, they should be protected by the the Bill of Rights.

The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, under which Malema was charged and convicted, has, however, complicated issues by adopting a far wider definition of hate speech than the Constitution. The Equality Act (for short) defines hate speech as words “that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful, cause harm or promote hatred on the basis of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language or birth’.

Many legal commentators have argued that this definition is unconstitutional because it is too wide in its application. The constitutional definition applies to only four grounds: race, ethnicity, gender and religion. The Equality Act criminalises hate speech on seventeen grounds. Furthermore, the Constitution requires an intention to cause harm. The presence or not of intention That is an objective fact: in the absence of such an intention, words cannot constitute hate speech.

The Equality Act, however, requires only that words could be construed as having the intention of being hurtful, harmful or hateful to constitute hate speech, regardless of the actual intention of the person who utters them. This conjures up, as one legal commentator noted, an image of highly sensitive individuals using the Equality Act to insulate themselves inside their own intolerant world. In Malema’s case, many people would undoubtedly construe his words as having the intention to be hurtful, and that explains his conviction of hate speech in terms of the Act. But what are the implications for us as a free society?

Am I to be denied the right, for argument’s sake, of criticising to criticise Jacob Zuma’s prediliction for polygamous marriages because that may be hurtful to people who subscribe to a particular culture? Is it verboten to publish a picture of the Prophet Mohamed because that would be hurtful to Muslims, or to teach evolutionary theory because that offends some Christians?

The hate speech provisions o f the Equality Act have not yet been tested in the Constitutional Court. Perhaps this would be an opportunity. It would be a good test of how seriously we, as South Africans, take our right to freedom of expression.

PS. Times editor Ray Hartley expresses a similar sentiment on his blog.

PPS. So does Tim Cohen in Business Day.

PPPS. So does constitutional expert Pierre de Vos on his blog Constitutionally Speaking.

PPPPS. David Watson has a different view.

PPPPPS. Eusebius McKaiser in Business Day makes my point exactly.

PPPPPPS. Mmm. The above are all men…


McBride defamation judgment is a step backward for press freedom

March 2, 2010

Harvey Tyson, a former editor of The Star, memorably remarked that editing a newspaper during the dark days of the emergency legislation was like “walking blindfold through a minefield”. The job may be slightly easier these days, but the Supreme Court of Appeal’s judgment in Robert McBride’s defamation case against the Citizen illustrates that some of those landmines are still out there. News media had better tread carefully.

McBride, the former Ekurhuleni police chief, won R150 000 in damages, plus most of his legal costs, from the Citizen for calling him a murderer, a criminal and unfit to be appointed as police chief. The ruling sets off alarm bells for several reasons. For one, it is one of the largest-ever damages awards for defamation in South Africa, and together with legal costs would prove crippling to many a news organisation (if not for the Citizen). It is sure to have a chilling effect on future news reporting and commentary. Secondly, in rejecting the Citizen’s appeal against a High Court ruling, the SCA in effect ruled that it is defamatory to refer negatively to the past actions of someone who has been granted amnesty for those actions by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That could make it very difficult to report and comment on the activities of people who were involved in human rights abuses during apartheid, and received amnesty.

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Does our Constitution protect polygamy? I don’t think so.

March 1, 2010

I agree with columnist Justice Malala that polygamy is a selfish and predatory practice – but is it, as it now seems widely believed, a constitutionally protected practice?

I am not a constitutional expert, but I can read, and I can’t find any reference at all to polygamy in the constitution. What the constitution does is to protect cultural practices that do not clash with other protected rights in the Bill of Rights (see Section 30). In other words, you may live according to your culture, as long as you do not trample on the rights of others.

Polygamy was legalised by the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998. But the mere fact that the practice of polygamy (and polyandry) is given legal status by statute does not mean that it is constitutionally acceptable. No aspect of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act has , as far as I can ascertain, been challenged in the Constitutional Court. In my view, a strong case could be made the polygamy constitutes unfair discrimination on the basis of gender (especially in forms which grant different hierarchical status to wives).

Perhaps a constitutional expert out there would care to comment?


No Mr President, it is not unconstitutional to criticise your culture

February 23, 2010

President Zuma has called for a national discussion about our “moral code” as a nation because, he says, it is unconstitutional to judge others by the standards of one’s own culture.

“Each one of us must be respected,” Zuma said, according to News24.com. “That’s what our Constitution says. No matter how you feel, some of us have very strong feelings about some of the things, but we respect the Constitution, no matter how we feel… It is about redefinition of ourselves. Who are we? What are our values?

“For, there is no standard that is agreed. The Constitution says there are diversities. It recognises this. And that we should respect cultures of others.

“No-one has a right, therefore, to use his or her own to judge others. It’s unconstitutional if you do so.”

In one sense, I agree with the president. There is a tendency among some South African and foreign observers to judge African behaviour by Western standards, and to belittle some apsects of African culture. We should respect cultural differences. But when Mr Zuma argues that it is unconstutional per se to criticise the cultural practices of others, he is wrong (and I suspect the fact that his own so-called cultural practices have come in for severe criticism has something to do with his this).

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Improving journalists’ understanding of international criminal justice

February 22, 2010

Should former President Thabo Mbeki be charged with genocide for denying HIV-Aids sufferers access to anti-retroviral drugs?

When Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela made such a call in November last year, it led to weeks of debate in the media, much if it, unfortunately, ill-informed. If journalists understood the law relating to genocide, and the international criminal justice process involved, we would have been spared an ultimately distracting debate: the real question is around accountability for political actions, but that got lost in the emotive war-of-words ignited by the term “genocide”.

Any journalist who looked at the definition of the crime of genocide, as stated in the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, would have realised immediately that Mbeki’s HIV-Aids policies could not constitute genocide, however much we want to hold him (and his cabinet colleagues) accountable (see below). But how many South African journalists had heard of the Rome Statute, let alone bothered to look it up?

A group of journalists, academics and activists met in Salzburg last week to draft a model curriculum for reporting on international criminal justice issues. The project, supported by the Salzburg Global Seminar, the Open Society Initiative and the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, is aimed at giving journalism students a better understanding of international criminal law, and to help them identify stories and analyze events.

The fruits of their labours – a draft curriculum outline – is available on the group’s website, together with other useful resources. The curriculum is flexible – it can be adapted and fleshed out for different countries and levels of study. Participant academics will devise detailed syllabi and teaching resources, which may be shared on the website and, perhaps, a follow-up meeting later this year.

Genocide, by the way, is defined in the Rome Statute, Article 6, as:

“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a) Killing members of the group;
b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”