By Ruth Hopkins
“Girls of 22 usually do nothing but lie on their backs with their legs open”. This is what 5 FM radio DJ Gareth Cliff said several weeks ago. On Friday, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) ruled that his statement did not amount to hate speech based on gender.
Cliff made the comment during an interview with Angela Larkan, a 27 year old activist who, at the age of 22, founded an organisation that fights the destructive impact of hiv/aids on kids. Cliff opined that is was admirable of her that she wasn’t lying on her back with her legs wide open at that age.
Because my rickety car radio only receives 5 FM, I always listen to Cliff in the morning. His dry and quite bizarre sense of humour provides a good antidote to the aggressive Joburg traffic.
It seems justifiable to me that his insulting comment was not qualified as hate speech. It was a sloppy remark and an unsuccessful attempt at being funny. The South African constitution stipulates that hate speech is the advocacy of hatred, based (in this case) on gender. Cliff was not advocating hatred of women. That qualification would ‘trivialise every notion of hate speech’, according to the BCCSA.
In terms of participation of women (in the labour force, politics, business etc) and cultural attitudes towards women, South Africa is not one of the most progressive nations in the world. However, sexist opinions are not met with indifference or impunity. The reason is that South Africa does have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Human rights, specifically the right not to be discriminated against,are thoroughly enshrined in and protected by the constitution.
Julius Malema, the controversial political firebrand currently grabbing every other headline, collided with those rights, when he stated that the woman who had accused president Zuma of rape, must have enjoyed the sex. The reason, he figured, was that she stayed the night and asked for ‘taxi money’ in the morning. Last year the equality court ruled that this statement amounted to hate speech based on gender. Rightly so, because trivialising the worst form of violence against women should be met with legal action. He was ordered to pay a fine to a women’s rights organisation.
In 2006, Jacob Zuma hastily withdrew a statement he made during his election campaign, when he realised that women’s and human rights organisations would take him to the cleaners. He had announced at a public meeting that gay marriage was a disgrace to the nation and to God. Before the organisations could slap a hate speech case on him, he apologised publicly, acknowledging that gays did actually have rights in South Africa.
South Africa has unique track record in the field of human rights, including women’s rights. As in many countries, the public domain is rife with sexist opinions and notions. But when these thoughts are expressed, there is an acute constitutional awareness that extends beyond the court room.