Andile Mngxitama. File photo:Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency/ANA

South Africans are sick and tired of being bullied and threatened by reckless populists on the fringes of our politics – people like Andile Mngxitama, and he is not alone, whose standard fare is nauseatingly racist and deliberately divisive.

It is a style of politics that has nothing whatever to offer in matching either the ethical standards or the material interests of the moderate, conscientious and respectful majority, the bulk of whom are crying out for political leaders to offer constructive solutions to the many difficulties the country faces.

Hate-mongering, inciteful rhetoric and race baiting have no place in a democracy, and contribute nil to solving our problems.

But we should steel ourselves to pause in the face of the counter-reaction that would see Mngxitama silenced, punished or banished from public politics.

He has reportedly been suspended from Twitter for seven days, and further steps have been taken by various instances with a view to penalising him for outrageous statements about killing white people and their pets on the grounds of an arbitrary association with the deaths of black people.

Whatever satisfaction might be derived from silencing the leader of the Black First Land First (BLF) president, the risks are twofold. 

The first is that it has a chilling effect on the freedom to speak of all South Africans.

This is the founding principle of every free society for which tolerance and free speech are two sides of the same coin. 

The right to speak our own minds is predicated on tolerance for those who disagree with us, and vice versa. Rejection of an idea, even an ugly idea, is not a sound basis, in principle, for wanting it to be banished.

The second is that censorship, far from erasing harmful ideas, only guarantees that they will almost certainly incubate in the dark, unlit spaces where they find refuge, and flourish unchallenged.

The argument for free speech is too often mired in the false difficulty that arises from objections to the content of the speech itself, and which invariably obscures the principle itself.

Defending free speech does not mean defending whatever is said – in exactly the same way as defending democracy does not automatically mean defending the political programme of, say, Freedom Front Plus,the EFF or the DA. 

Defending freedom of speech is no different from defending democracy to the extent that it means defending a manner of conduct that permits disagreement, and argumentation, in liberty.

Does this mean Andile Mngxitama is in the clear? The difficult question – which it may well end up being for the courts to decide – is whether Mngxitama crossed the line from what is constitutionally defensible to what is not.

The line drawn by the South African constitution of 1996 is contained in the Bill of Rights, which says freedom of expression ‘does not extend to… incitement of imminent violence’ or ‘advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm’.

The key tests, then, are whether Mngxitama’s inflammatory comments amounted to ‘incitement of imminent violence’ – imminence being a key factor – and whether their clear advocacy of hatred went as far as constituting ‘incitement to cause harm’.

For the prosecuting authorities, Mngxitama’s statements present a problem of credibility, given the state’s heavy-handed response to the likes of Penny Sparrow and Vicky Momberg, whose comments, however hurtful or ugly, did not come anywhere near inciting imminent violence.

Moderate South Africans deserve better than double standards, and they will doubtless be watching closely to see how the judicial authorities respond to Mngxitama.

Yet there is, as is evident from the preceding argument, considerable doubt about the wisdom of counting on the law as an instrument for making people think the right thoughts when the fundamental process of free societies depends on arguing the case for every idea.

But, if preserving free speech really is the greater good, we feel certain that the majority of South Africans agree with us in challenging President Cyril Ramaphosa, the ruling party and every other political leader in the country to join ordinary citizens in saying: ‘Enough is enough, we reject racism from whichever quarter it comes; it has no place in our modern, free society, and we disown those who espouse it.’

* Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.