The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, which attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are”.
In other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or any other identity factor.
Namibia’s Constitution forbids racial discrimination.
The law is clear on the previous power dynamic that placed black Namibians in an inferior social position to their white counterparts, and sought to remedy this skewed distribution of power through legislation.
However, hate speech is not limited to race discrimination and manifests itself in tribalism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and Sinophobia, to mention a few.
Nowhere is it more common and tolerated than on social media.
This year alone, the prevalence of hate speech directed at those regarded as minorities was widespread on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
HURT AND HARM
The utterances of a civil servant, Eva-Maria Nangolo, about Damara culture and heritage drew public condemnation from those who recognised it for what it was – hate speech.
Another instance was an attempt by Epafras Mukwilongo, a member of the Namibia Economic Freedom Fighters, to humiliate the justice minister by using a harmful stereotype in relation to her gender and the surname she uses.
Words are not innocent, and understanding hate speech requires us to understand what it is and why it takes place, namely to hurt, harm and incite violence.
Hate speech runs parallel with discrimination, a subtle form of violence.
On 16 May, the Supreme Court of Namibia ruled that the government must recognise the unions of same-sex couples who married in countries where is was legal to do so, although same-sex marriage remains illegal in Namibia itself.
What ensued was a vitriol of hate speech targeting members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) community.
This is often referred to as homophobia.
The Afrobarometer report of 2021 found Namibia (with 64% of the population) to be the third-most tolerant country of homosexuality in Africa, after Cabo Verde (82%), and South Africa (71%).
Given this report, why is hate speech targeted at members of the LGBTQI+ community accepted as the norm in Namibia – especially on online forums?
The answer lies in the power dynamic that places heterosexuals in a socially superior position to their homosexual counterparts.
This is what the Supreme Court (I think) tried to balance in its judgement in recognising same-sex marriages solemnised outside the country.
The opposite of exclusion is not inclusion, the opposite of exclusion is equity.
The question thus arises: Where is the power, and who are we trying to protect?
It is often argued that one of the functions of a democracy is to protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority.
Human beings are creatures of habit, and those who engage in hate speech do so to harm, injure, dehumanise, ridicule and debase their targets, at times with clear intention and at times without knowing or fully acknowledging how their words affect the next person.
This begs the question of whether hate speech is legislated in Namibia, and which minorities should be protected by such legislation.
Another fundamental question is how we balance the concept of hate speech in relation to freedom of speech.
- Vitalio Angula is a socio-political commentator