Chinese Association heads to court over ‘hate speech’ comments on Facebook

Equality Court hears history of discrimination against Chinese people in South Africa

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The Equality Court sitting in Johannesburg is hearing a case of anti-Chinese hate speech against 12 people who made comments on a Facebook post two years ago.

Members of the Chinese Association have finally had their day in court to tackle statements they say are anti-Chinese hate speech.

This follows a slew of cases concerning the use of racial slurs in social media posts in recent months. The case was heard in the Equality Court, Johannesburg in November and December 2019 following a complaint filed in May 2017. The complaint emanates largely from a number of comments made after an episode of Carte Blanche, which was later posted on the Karoo Donkey Sanctuary Facebook page. It depicted abuse and mutilation of donkeys.

The Chinese Association, which represents the interests both of of Chinese South African nationals and Chinese nationals living in South Africa, laid a complaint against 12 individuals — Alice Henning, Anja Lock, Cynthia Le Roux, David Horne, Dawn Reeve, Joy Termoshuizen, Lana Berger, Mariette Van Der Linde De Klerk, Regina Richardson, Ryan van der walt, Shana Markram and Tracy Terink — for comments posted on the Carte Blanche and Karoo Donkey Sanctuary’s Facebook pages.

The comments on social media were made between January and February 2017. It included xenophobic statements. “I also hate them … they are not human,” wrote Alice Henning . Some posts included calls for violence: “Personally I say wipe them out – I’d be the first to be there,” wrote David Horne.

The Chinese Association filed its complaint under the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. In the complaint, the Association states that the comments were “demeaning, degrading, humiliating and intimidating towards all Chinese people, making them feel unwelcome and unsafe in South Africa”. The Association is seeking an order declaring that the statements constitute hate speech and that the individuals named are prevented from making similar statements in the future. They also want the individuals to apologise for the statements and pay damages or complete community service and an anger management course.

However, the Association’s evidence before the court went beyond the comments made in relation to the Carte Blanche video. It also highlighted the oppression of the Chinese community under apartheid and the difficulties the community faces today.

Witnesses for the Association include academic researchers Professors Yoon Juan Park and Melanie Yap, whose work has focussed on discrimination against Chinese immigrants dating back to the 1600s, under apartheid and today. Henry Wing, a member of the Chinese Association, and Erwin Pon, Association chairperson, also shared their childhood memories and experiences of oppression, growing up under the apartheid government.

In a press release following the court hearings, deputy chairperson Francis Lai Hong said, “The case is about shining a spotlight on how Chinese people in South Africa face frequent hate speech, particularly on social media. Many South Africans don’t know the history of Chinese in this country - the contributions we have made and the pain we have suffered. We want to break the silence on our experiences of discrimination and so we expect many of our community members to attend the court hearing.”

Final arguments were made last week. Of the 12 people named, only David Horne and Mariette Van Der Linde De Klerk opposed the case. De Klerk denied that the comments from her Facebook account were posted by her. Horne argued that his comments were taken out of context and did not ‘malign’ the Chinese population but rather expressed anger against animal abuse.

Five others named in the complaint — Dawn Reeve, Lana Berger, Regina Richardson, Ryan Van Der Walt and Shana Markham — have agreed to settle the case. Reeve, Richardson, Van Der Walt and Markham admitted that their comments constituted hate speech and Reeve acknowledged that animal cruelty is ‘not a part of the character or culture of Chinese people’.

Most of them also agreed to the relief requested by the Chinese Association including a promise not to express the same or similar comments in the future, completing a “sensitisation” course and community service. Berger tendered an apology, highlighting that she did not intend her comments to be directed at all Chinese people but understood that she may have implied this. Berger offered to do community service and formally apologise.

The ultimate decision will be up to the Equality Court when final arguments conclude next year, to determine what order, if any, should be made against the 12 respondents.

Closing arguments are to be heard in February.

CORRECTION: A quote in the original version of the article was misattributed. Our apologies.

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