Sticks and stones might break your bones, but words could lead to genocide

Julius Malema took Patriotic Alliance deputy leader Kenny Kunene to the Equality Court on Monday. Kunene’s offence? Calling Malema a cockroach during a TV interview last year. Malema apparently feels this is a very dangerous thing to say, given it’s what the Hutus called the Tutsis before bludgeoning and stomping a million of them to death in 100 terrifying days in 1994.

Malema is absolutely correct. Sticks and stones might break your bones, but words lead to genocide. Cockroaches might have a particular Rwandan resonance, but they’ve been used as an epithet in our discourse before by Malema himself. It’s not the first time he and the EFF have been called cockroaches either. Baleka Mbete, who has variously been Speaker and deputy president (for a short time), infamously described them as such back in 2016 when she was on the hustings in Northwest in her other capacity as ANC national chair. 

Whoever the person uttering it, that kind of language has no kind of place whatsoever in South Africa – even if it is metaphorical. What is truly fascinating is how Malema thinks the court will square his argument that being called a cockroach is hate speech when singing “Kill the Boer” apparently isn’t. 

Judge Edwin Molahleli ruled in the Equality Court last month that singing “Dubul’ibhunu” (Kill the Boer) couldn’t be taken literally – and in any case the government was to blame for the continuing failure of the land restitution process and the attendant anger which that created.

On that basis, Mbete and Kunene should have every right to call Malema and his party cockroaches, surely? It’s free speech. It’s figurative, Malema doesn’t have antennae or six legs. It’s not literal, unlike “cutting the throat of whiteness” – another one of Malema’s whimsies, when he wanted to unseat Atholl Trollip as Mayor or Nelson Mandela Bay in 2018.

But none of that is really the point, which is that Malema feels mortally threatened – despite the fact that the person threatening him is more famous for eating sushi off the bellies of naked showgirls than breaking knee caps.

And that’s not the point either. 

The point quite simply is that Malema has the right to be protected against hate speech, speech that conceivably could lead to him being harmed or even killed. Our constitution guarantees that. 

How much more then should people be protected where the threat is unequivocal? There’s nothing figurative about getting everyone gee-ed up to kill farmers – or white people who speak Afrikaans. There’s nothing allegorical about cutting white throats, unlike say eradicating vermin like cockroaches.

The irony is Greek in its scope and scale, the Karmic clap back resounding; but there should be no schadenfreude at the sight of someone so quick to publicly threaten his own violence now quailing at the prospect of it being meted out on himself. Instead, let us use this an opportunity to recalibrate the debate once and for all within the ambit of the Rule of Law and stop victim triaging according to ever shifting sensitivities. 

Everyone deserves to be protected. Farmers and fascists too. 

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 17 September 2022.