Durban comedian Carvin |H Goldstone

Durban - Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin said: “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.”

Cracking jokes could be no laughing matter for comedians if a proposed government bill makes it into law books.

And comedians are not finding the funny side to the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, which they say only leaves them with the option of taking shots at themselves.

Justice Minister Michael Masutha last week opened the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill for public comment.

The bill was approved for public comment on October 19. This comes as government tries to crack down on hate speech and hate crimes.

According to the bill, first offenders can receive up to three years in prison and a fine if found guilty. Repeat offenders will face up to 10 years in jail and a fine if found guilty. The public has until December 1 to comment on the bill.

“We are clear that this bill of itself may not end racism and other intolerances, but will create an instrument that will hold those guilty of committing acts accountable before the law,” Masutha said.

“It is important that the final version of the bill must represent the collective wisdom of the nation and reflect our renewed commitment to uproot these social ills.”

Durban-based comedian Masood Boomgard said he found it to be “hugely limiting for all comedians if it happens”.

“From what I have read you wouldn’t be able to joke about anything or anyone without being prosecuted. You can’t joke about religion, politics, race, gender. The only thing left for me would be self-mocking or self-deprecating comedy. Even then I’d be offending someone – myself. But it would be up to me to decide whether I want to press charges against myself.”

Boomgard said there was not a clear line between freedom of expression and hate speech, and no one bothered with comedians until now.

“I’m not sure if regulation is the way to go though. In some way, the industry is self-regulated. Comedians who choose to spew hate speech don’t get booked by promoters and are kept off stage. I don’t think there needs to be special laws for comedians,” he said.

Comedian John Vlismas did not mince his words: “Firstly, at a time when the people making laws are under suspicion of grave corruption, there should be a moratorium on any new laws and/or amendments to laws. Secondly, how do we serve human rights by jailing people for using words we clumsily deem as ‘hatred’ while we assist mass murderers to evade justice?

“Thirdly, a group of citizens who gather and elect to suspend their disbelief in the interests of being entertained by art should be a safe place to explore, provoke, challenge and debate. Satire is a provocative art form by definition, and has always spoken truth to power. Art must reflect life and sometimes walk down a dark path to do so. By banning it, or jailing its practitioners, you will turn dialogue into an insipid monologue flavoured by a state in the death throes of gangrene.”

Comedian Carvin Goldstone said comedy was based on prejudice in South Africa, and where there was a lot of prejudice this gave comedians a lot of material to work with.

He said many South African comedians pushed the line and would say things their international counterparts would be afraid to say.

This did not, however, mean comedians could do and say whatever they wanted. “It can’t be willy nilly and hurt people in the name of art,” he said, adding he was not opposed to a law governing hate speech.

He said people needed to be held accountable.

Goldstone said comedy should not be used to perpetuate old ideas that were not constructive or were outdated.

Goldstone said he had come across comedians who said some hurtful things. It made him ask if they were actually cracking jokes or were using the guise of comedy as an outlet for their views.

He said there was not much that could be done if the ruling party wanted to vote in the bill because it had the majority vote anyway.

However, Goldstone said it might be a challenge to monitor because there were many comedy clubs in the country.

He said it was only at big events where effective monitoring could be done.