In the furore around Jon Qwelane's column on gays, the public has lost sight of the fact that racist hate speech is rampant in online forums like that of the Mail & Guardian, writes J Stuart Joubert in this letter to   

J Stuart Joubert writes:

The recent furore surrounding comments by South African journalist and media personality, Jon Qwelane, has again drawn attention to the ongoing problem of hatespeech in the South African media, particularly the online media.

I have nothing to say about Mr Qwelane’s opinions, other than that he is a working journalist and that ultimate responsibility for the publication of his remarks belongs to the editor of the Sunday Sun and to the owners and publishers of that newspaper, Naspers and their associate Media24.

The extent of the response to Mr Quelane’s words is due in no small part to their publication in a weekend newspaper with a wide circulation.  Offence was given to a vocal, articulate, educated and highly organised minority who are well represented in the media industry in South Africa and elsewhere.  If legal proceedings should eventuate as a result of this incident it will be a significant test of the South African Constitution and laws regarding press freedom, freedom of expression and the prohibition of hatespeech.

Irrespective of the legality or otherwise of Mr Qwelane’s very public remarks, they are probably both irrelevant and inappropriate.  South Africa’s news media have more vital and challenging issues to debate.  That, however, is a matter for the editors and publishers of the Sunday Sun and the bodies responsible for the regulation of the media in South Africa such as the Press Ombudsman.

A more pressing issue in the South African digital media, that of the use of so-called internet discussion forums by certain individuals to denigrate their fellow South Africans in a manner that is clearly racially motivated, remains in my view unresolved.  Media owners are aware of the problem and have responded either by removing discussion forums from their websites or by appointing moderators to explain the rules and to delete offensive material.  Provided that the moderators, often volunteers, are vigilant harm is minimised because such forums are patronised by relatively few people.  Internet forums are, however, accessible to anyone anywhere in the world at any time and are thus a 'window on South Africa'.

In recent months an anonymous individual known only as “Prof_6” has been arguing on the Mail & Guardian discussion forums – – that intelligence is entirely hereditary and racially determined.  His attacks are clearly racially motivated and aimed at the majority of South Africans, although he dresses them in pseudo-scientific language.  I believe that his utterances, when published to a mass audience in this way, are in breach both of the South African law and Constitution and of international conventions on racism to which South Africa is a signatory.

Nations as diverse as South Africa, India, Canada and the member countries of the European Union have laws forbidding, inter alia, the public promotion of the belief that members of a particular ethnic group are in any way morally, intellectually or otherwise superior to any other group of people.

The aforementioned “Prof_6” is the most glaring example of racism on the Mail & Guardian discussion forums.  There are numerous incidences of other racially motivated comments going unchecked by the persons responsible for moderating those forums.

During their nine-year currency the Mail & Guardian forums have been well moderated at times, but have also suffered years of poor and irresponsible moderation by individuals apparently concerned only with amusing themselves.  The current moderating team seems to have a flawed understanding of the right to free expression as it applies in South Africa. Apparently they prefer to model themselves on the United States 1st Amendment which protects the rights even of racist organisations such as the KKK to promote their beliefs, “educate” the public and recruit members.  Such is not the case in other parts of the developed world and nor, many would argue, should it be.

In November last year, Riaan Wolmarans, the editor of the online edition of the Mail & Guardian stated that he was aware of the extent of undesirable activity on the M&G’s discussion forums and that the forums might have to be discontinued.  He mentioned that he and his colleagues were fully engaged supervising activity on the Thought Leader website and that they were not in a position to monitor the discussion forums as well.

The online edition of the Mail & Guardian is produced by a very small group of people with material sourced from the print edition.  The newspaper, and the associated discussion forums, is published digitally by MWeb (Naspers) which has a controlling interest in the online edition of the M&G.  Moderation of the discussion forums is by volunteers, supposedly supervised by a full-time website administrator and developer employed by MWeb.

As previously stated, the tone and content of what appears on the M&G discussion pages depends on the vigilance and commitment of the moderators.  When certain “moderators” are prepared to condone racist invective thinly disguised as legitimate political and social comment, then the site becomes littered with hatespeech of a type that would be unacceptable if published in most jurisdictions outside the United States.

The targets of racist abuse on the Mail & Guardian discussion pages are the great majority of South Africans who, along with  minority groups such as the Gay community, are equally deserving of the protection of the law and the Constitution.  That there has not been an outcry on their behalf is probably due to the comparatively small number of people reading the discussion forums, a significant number of whom – regrettably – may agree with the racist sentiments being expressed.

In responding, however cautiously, to the call to arms by the Gay Rights lobby in South Africa, I trust that concerned South Africans will not overlook those millions of their countryfolk regularly subjected to racist abuse on internet discussion forums hosted on websites owned and managed by South African media organisations.

* This contribution was written for