In a video that circulated on social media recently, Welkom Mayor Nkosinjani Speelman used the term “boesman” to describe coloured people during an address to members of the South African National Defence Force ahead of their deployment into communities during the countrywide Covid-19 lockdown.
Speelman also played on apartheid stereotypes of the coloured community, calling them unruly drunkards, as he encouraged soldiers not to hesitate to “skop en donner” (kick and beat) the people of Bronville. There was an outcry from members of the public, especially coloured people. The SA Human Rights Commissioner in Free State, Thabang Kheswa, confirmed the receipt of several complaints over Speelman’s comments.
ANC officials decided to temporarily suspend the Welkom mayor, both a member of the party and a public representative, for violating the provision in its constitution that prohibits all forms of racist utterances. He has since made a public apology in which he justified his racism as a “slip of the tongue”.
“It was not undermining you – it was just out of mistake. So I want to apologise to everybody from Bronville, in particular the coloured people,” Speelman said. “I was not saying it in a bad spirit; it was just a slip of the tongue – to say that these people are giving us a problem … I am humble, I feel so sorry for what I have said.”
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) however, was not satisfied with the apology. In a media statement, the commission said it viewed his utterances in a very serious light and that Speelman’s apology would not suffice. They committed to a full investigation after the current Covid-19 lockdown – which would also look into other allegations of human rights violations by the city in its failure to serve the community.
This is not the first time that the coloured community has pursued legal action against the use of the word, which has long been used to dehumanise them in southern Africa. But this particular incident may just lead to the necessary restrictions of its use under our democratic dispensation.
In 2008, Jacobus Faasen submitted to the Equality Court that, as a descendant of the KhoiSan, he found the use of the word “boesman” by Die Burger newspaper to be hate speech because it disregarded his human dignity. He argued that it was derived from the word “bosjesman”, which meant baboon, or orang-utan.
The court did not rule in Faasen’s favour, however, they found that the newspaper’s usage was not malicious. And in the years that followed, several cases of this nature have been brought before a variety of tribunals, all with the same outcome, based on the same principle: Intent.
During the 2013 strike at Glencore Xstrata in Sekhukhune, the Mail & Guardian reported that an employee complained of being called a “boesman” by a white employee. In a report, the presiding officer ruled that the slur was an accepted nickname of the employee.
SABC1’s Khumbul’ekhaya came under fire in 2016 when Frederick Smith complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa that an episode of the show was offensive when it referred to coloured people in a “manner that is racist‚ insulting and defamatory”.
In the episode‚ a Xitsonga-speaking individual referred to a coloured person as a “boesman”. The television network translated the word to “coloured person” in its English subtitles to clarify what she meant. The complaint was dismissed. The commission stated that the word was not intended to be used in a demeaning way.
The precedent set by the 2008 Equality Court ruling allowed for the continued use of the term, despite numerous expressions of its negative impact on the dignity of the coloured community. For as long as it was not meant with ill intention, it was fine under the law. And as demonstrated in Speelman’s case, this remains the go-to justification for those called out for its usage.
When Penny Sparrow called black beachgoers “monkeys” in a 2016 Facebook post, she was slapped with a R150,000 fine – despite arguing that her intent was not racist because she found primates to be cute, but messy. Her crimen injuria conviction shifted the way our courts deal with incidents of racism, coming down harder on convicted racists, sending a clear message of intolerance of hate speech.
The most recent example of this was that of Adam Catzavelos, who was also fined R150,000 and made to publicly apologise for his use of the k-word in a 22-second online video. In another case, estate agent Vicky Momberg was sentenced to three years in prison after throwing a racist temper tantrum, where she used the slur several times against black law enforcement officers.
The use of the k-word is so severely restricted in our country because it was acknowledged by the Constitutional Court in SARS v CCMA (2017 (1) SA 549 (CC) to be “the worst insult that can ever be visited upon an African person in South Africa”. There are no grey areas; it is not to be used to describe another person, by law.
The “b-word” carries that same weight in the coloured community, and should hold the same restrictions on its usage regardless of so-called intent, or its adoption into vernacular languages under apartheid rule – after all, we have evidently made great progress in phasing out this type of language.
Speelman’s SAHRC investigation will quite likely find him guilty of hate speech. Unlike the incidents before, there is no confusion about his intent – not only had he advocated hatred toward coloured people by stereotyping them, he attempted to incite violence against this community. He should be held to the same level of account as those in recent years.
The Welkom mayor has clearly demonstrated the danger of providing allowance for the usage of apartheid-era slurs. These words are not only loaded for those on the receiving end, but they are also laced with hatred harboured during our painful past. In the wrong hands, they can quite literally be a loaded gun. DM