Coping with hate speech

Swastikas on a power box in Macassar

A case of hurtful antisemitic comments directed at a local Jewish person resulted in a ruling by the Human Rights Commission. 

The Cape Jewish Chronicle spoke to the Executive Director at the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Daniel Bloch, to find out more.

According to Daniel, “We encourage members of our community to report anything which they feel is antisemitic. If you are able to resolve an issue at school or in the workplace, that is great, but please let us know about it. In the past we have heard of incidents where parents or individuals have tried unsuccessfully to resolve things without consulting the Board. We are here to help in any way we can and recommend reaching out to us first.

“We believe in restorative justice and this includes educating those who have committed antisemitic or discriminatory acts as to why a particular statement or incident was offensive to a particular individual or group of people. We cannot overcome hatred through punishment. We need to understand the reasons for an individual making offensive comments and educate them accordingly. However, there are times when more severe punishment is required and we would leave our courts to decide on the appropriate penalty.”

What is hate speech and how are people protected from it in SA law and in the SA constitution?

According to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), hate speech may be defined as expression which goes beyond mere insults or offensive language, and which may infringe the dignity of certain persons or groups. It includes derogatory language or expression intended to belittle the intelligence, humanity, appearance and beliefs of a particular group of people. Hate speech impacts negatively on victims in terms of their self-worth. It causes significant hurt, harm, pain, distress, sorrow and humiliation, is degrading and dehumanising, has the effect of depriving victims of their fundamental rights and it impugns the right to human dignity and equality. 

According to the SAHRC, Equality Courts are central to the protection of the right to equality. An Equality Court will determine whether the right to equality has been violated, will sanction offenders, and will provide relief to persons whose rights have been violated. The courts have the power to include actions which offenders must perform to promote respect for and observance of the law and to deter further violations. Equality courts determine matters involving unfair discrimination, hate speech or harassment.

Does the utterance or event have to be in the public sphere to constitute hate speech or can it be in a one-on-one situation? Can it be something on social media that isn’t directly addressed to you yourself but is a general comment about Jews?

All of the above. However, in almost every case, there has to be evidence to support the claims. If something is posted on social media or sent via a text message, that can most definitely be used as evidence against the aggressor. It can either be aimed at an individual or at a group of people. Our recent success at the SAHRC involved an individual who was filmed making Hitler comments towards a Jewish individual. 

There have been other cases — e.g. the Masuku case of 2009 where Cosatu’s Bongani Masuku was ordered to apologise to the Jewish community for a statement he made. The case took 13 years to resolve. Read the story here.

If you are in a situation where you think you could be subject to hate speech, what should you do?

If you are able to record something, take a screenshot on social media, download a file or take a photo – that would be best. If it is in relation to antisemitism, the Cape SAJBD would investigate the matter further and advise on the course of action. If it is related to other forms of hate speech, we would still try to assist to the best of our abilities – this may include referring to another organisation which may specialise in specific forms of discrimination and hate.

It would be best to contact the Board to understand if a case should be laid. Unfortunately, not everything is viewed as hate speech and not every incident will require police investigation.

What should you not do?

Do not try to confront the individual or the group who has accosted you, especially if you do not know the people in question. If something happens at school, university or in the workplace, you should report the incident to a senior person. If you experience hate speech via social media do not engage in conversation. More often than not it will elicit even more offensive comments and you may find yourself outnumbered. Rather report something to the relevant social media platform – first remember to take a screenshot or download the file/image in question.

How can the SAJBD assist?

Once a matter has been reported to us, we would investigate it. There are always two sides to a story which is why we would contact both parties. Once the investigation is concluded and we have all the facts at hand, we will advise the individual on the best way forward. 

In many cases, the individual should lay a charge with SAPS or engage with a lawyer. However, the Board would be there to assist. In certain instances, we would file a complaint on behalf of an individual, as in the recent SAHRC case between a landlord and a Jewish tenant. If there is an incident of hate speech aimed at the entire community, then the Cape SAJBD would take action on behalf of the community. 

Our Constitution protects us all. But, sometimes, what you may think is antisemitic or hate speech, may not be seen as such by a court of law. However, it is our mandate and our duty to investigate each and every incident which may be construed as antisemitic.

Useful contact details in the event of an incident: We have an antisemitism WhatsApp number which can be used for messages and to send images/videos: +27 79 994 5573. You can also email us on

• Published in the August 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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