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Racial tensions flare in South Africa over newspaper column

Eric Miyeni, a columnist for the Sowetan, is fired for alleged hate speech in his attack on another paper's editor, who ran an article criticizing the ANC's divisive youth leader, Julius Malema.

August 03, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Julius Malema, head of the youth wing of South Africa's ruling African National Congress party, speaks out last month against the NATO bombings of Libya.
Julius Malema, head of the youth wing of South Africa's ruling African… (Paballo Thekiso, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — Hate speech or free speech?

A South African newspaper columnist was fired Tuesday for writing that an editor at another publication was a "black snake in the grass" working for white masters and probably would have been burned as punishment during the struggle against apartheid.

The editor of the City Press, Ferial Haffajee, published an article last week detailing alleged corruption by Julius Malema, the polarizing youth wing leader of the ruling African National Congress. The article alleges that Malema took bribes from businessmen in return for using his contacts to facilitate government contracts, and it raised questions about how he funds his extravagant lifestyle on a salary of a few thousand dollars a month.

In response, Eric Miyeni, a columnist at the Sowetan newspaper who has often championed Malema in his work, wrote a piece viewed by many as scathing and darkly threatening.

The column Monday, headlined, "Haffajee does it for white masters," said Malema wasn't answerable to people like Haffajee.

"Who the devil is she anyway, if not a black snake in the grass deployed by white capital to sow discord amongst blacks? In the '80s she'd probably have had a burning tire around her neck," wrote Miyeni, who is black, as are Haffajee and Malema.

He was referring to killings by ANC freedom fighters and others who put tires full of gasoline around the necks of those accused of collaborating with their enemies and set them alight.

Many observers saw Miyeni's column as hate speech and an incitement to violence, but Miyeni stood by his column in a TV interview, saying he was entitled to free speech and that his column had received widespread praise. He denied inciting violence, saying he was considering suing the Sowetan, which allowed the column to be published, knowing its contents.

Miyeni said the necklacing comment was a metaphor, not an incitement to violence, to illustrate that in the 1980s black traitors were necklaced.

"The inference is if she was seen to be a traitor this is what would have happened to her," he said. "My assumption is that we are in a mature country with intelligent people. "

With its troubled racial past, South Africa's attempts to remake itself as a racially equal society have often stumbled, with massive unemployment and poverty among blacks compared with a small super-rich elite of whites and politically connected blacks. Efforts to place business capital and land into black hands have been halting.

Malema has been quick to capitalize on popular anger, calling for nationalization of land and banks. He won support from alienated young blacks, but has scared off foreign investors with his extremist views.

Malema's aggressive anti-imperialist rhetoric and attacks on white journalists and politicians have also left many South Africans uneasy and, according to some critics, shifted the boundary on what kind of remarks on race are accepted in public debate. A rights group representing Afrikaners and others last year filed hate speech charges against Malema for repeatedly singing the song "Shoot the Boer," a struggle-era song that promotes violence against white farmers.

South's Africa's mainly unstated racial tensions grate daily against the constitution's guarantees of racial equality for all. But occasionally the unspoken bursts into the open, when someone voices a racial jibe that it seems many privately share.

Haffajee said her long experience as a political journalist has shown her that South Africa generally relies on intelligent debate of issues.

"I think that what the youth league has done is to toxify that space, instead of debating ideas, because I think they're not comfortable with ideas," Haffajee said.

She is suing Miyeni, and if she wins, she says, will use any damages for a scholarship for young opinion writers.

"One of the reasons I am suing is that many of us have started to draw a line in the sand and say: 'This is not the kind of country we are. This is not the way we talk to each other,' " she said.

The Sowetan's editor, Mondli Makhanya, said Miyeni represented the views of many South Africans but had crossed the line. He said the column was wrong because it incited violence.

"It [necklacing] is just the most horrendous execution that anybody could be subjected to, and to evoke that in 2011 is horrendous," Makhanya said. "What he was doing was dehumanizing her. It was an incitement to violence and it went way beyond what the column should have done. We shouldn't have let it through."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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