Jacob Zuma under investigation for using hate speech

Complaints lodged with human rights watchdog after South African president blames country’s ills on its first white settler, Jan van Riebeeck.


Jacob Zuma reportedly told a fundraising dinner that Van Riebeeck’s arrival ‘disrupted South Africa’s social cohesion, repressed people and caused wars’. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, is under official investigation for using hate speech against a man who died 338 years ago.

Complaints have been lodged with a human rights watchdog after Zuma blamed South Africa’s ills on the country’s first white settler, Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch administrator who opened the way for European colonisation.

“You must remember that a man called Jan van Riebeeck arrived here on 6 April 1652, and that was the start of the trouble in this country,” Zuma reportedly told a recent fundraising dinner in Cape Town. “What followed were numerous struggles and wars and deaths and the seizure of land and the deprivation of the indigenous peoples’ political and economic power.”

Van Riebeeck’s arrival “disrupted South Africa’s social cohesion, repressed people and caused wars”, he said.

The comments, and the backlash against them, illustrate how a tormented racial history dating back centuries is in constant tension with the aspiration of a “rainbow nation”. The opposition Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) party, representing Afrikaner interests, accused Zuma of causing polarisation and lodged a charge of hate speech with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

Pieter Mulder, leader of the FF Plus, said Zuma was resorting to “scapegoat politics”. He told parliament on Wednesday: “The honourable president says a man called Jan van Riebeeck arrived here, and that was the start of problems in the country. I can prove the president is wrong. But what did he say in plain language? He said, when white people arrived here the trouble started.

“What is the understanding of ordinary ANC supporters? They understand that if one gets rid of the white man, all problems are solved. Get rid of the cockroaches and all problems go away.”

The SAHRC confirmed that it is investigating the FF Plus complaint and two other complaints of hate speech against Zuma. “We have accepted these complaints and have started with the investigation,” its spokesperson Isaac Mangena said.

Van Riebeeck, working for the Dutch East India Company, founded the settlement at the southern tip of Africa that became Cape Town. The day of his arrival used to be a public holiday known as Founder’s Day, but was abolished by the new democratic government in 1994. Van Riebeeck’s face also used to adorn the national currency, the rand, which now bears the image of the first black president, Nelson Mandela.

Dave Steward, the executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, wrote last month: “The anti-Jan van Riebeeck campaign is yet another example of the disturbing and increasingly overt anti-white posture of the president and theANC. Indeed, the ANC’s core programme, its ‘national democratic revolution’, is the continuation and completion of its ‘liberation’ struggle against white South Africans whom it views as ‘antagonists’.”

Zuma stuck to his guns on Thursday during a state of the nation debate. “It is history,” he told parliament in Cape Town. “When I said that Jan van Riebeeck landed here our problems began … it’s a historic fact. Wars happened, people were removed. It is written down, it’s not me concocting it.”

The president reiterated, however, his commitment to Mandela’s vision of a non-racial society, insisting that there had never been an intention to drive white people out of the country. “I’ll never be racist. I fight against those who suppress minorities.”

Zuma appeared calm, and earned social media plaudits for a statesmanlike performance during his speech, after a week of personal and political turmoil in South Africa.

His state of the nation address last Thursday descended into chaos and fisticuffs when armed security were called to remove the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) after they raised questions over lavish public spending on Zuma’s rural homestead. There was also an uproar over the use of a jamming device that blocked journalists’ mobile phone signals.

Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, claimed he had mishandled the situation, and in parliament this week Mmusi Maimane, the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, delivered a scathing verdict.

“For you, honourable president, are not an honourable man. You are a broken man, presiding over a broken society. You are willing to break every democratic institution to try and fix the legal predicament you find yourself in,” he said.

Zuma’s ally Baleka Mbete, the speaker of the national assembly, was forced to apologise after describing the EFF leader Julius Malema as a “cockroach”, a word that to many ears had grim echoes of the Rwandan genocide.