2024: A message from the Free Speech Union of South Africa (FSU SA)

This new year's message is our view on possible challenges to free speech to watch out for in 2024. Between the national and provincial election expected in May, and legislation awaiting the president's signature to turn them into law, complacency is not an option.

2024: A message from the Free Speech Union of South Africa (FSU SA)

Safeguarding Your Voice

As we welcome the New Year, the FSU SA remains committed to vigilantly defending the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression in South Africa. It being THE election year, the FSU SA has to be acutely aware of the legislative environment shaping our society.

In the most significant election since 1994, the FSU SA believes that the potential for the abuse of free speech is not insignificant. South Africa has more free speech than much of the Anglophone world. The death of apartheid gave rise to a vigorous, loud, controversial and proud sense of free speech.

Both the legacy media and social media allow us to say almost everything we want to, whether informed, ignorant, tolerant, bigoted, insulting, praiseworthy even if the legacy media shows distinct biases, there are other platforms that will accommodate views.

That is not to say that the right to free speech isn’t matched by an obligation to use free speech wisely. And if wisdom eludes us, we shouldn’t be criminalised for what we say unless it contravenes the Constitution and the Equality Act.

The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill will encroach on free speech by criminalising legitimate expressions of opinion. Consequently, we are completing a petition to the President urging him not to sign it into law: it will be posted to the site once completed.

The defining characteristic of a society that prioritises civil liberty is that hate speech is not addressed through legal or political coercion, but through social or economic pressure. 

The Electoral Commission Electoral Code of Conduct provides that parties and candidates must:

    • Speak out against political violence and threats against other parties, the Electoral Commission, members of the public and the media;
    • Let the authorities know about planned marches or rallies;
    • Communicate with other political parties about planned political events;Recognise the authority of the Electoral Commission;
    • Work with the Electoral Commission structures and allow them to perform their duties;
    • Work with the police in their investigation of election crime and violence;
    • Accept the results of the election or challenge the result in court.

The Electoral Code must be agreed to by every registered party before the party takes part in an election; and by every candidate before being placed on the list of candidates.

Parties and candidates must stick to the code and must:

    • Advise the public know about the Code;
    • Promote the purpose of the Code; and
    • Support efforts to educate voters.

Most importantly from the FSU SA’s point of view, parties and candidates must inform the public that all people have the right -

    • to be free to express their political beliefs and to be part of any political party; and
    • to join in any political campaigns, marches or public meetings.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address on the ANC’s 112th birthday was a master-class in mendacity and delusion, but it gave a flavour of its attitude to the opposition parties contesting this election:

‘We know that there are social and political forces hard at work to undermine the gains of freedom.

  These anti-transformation forces are converging into pacts while trying to fragment the forces for change through splinter groups and small parties to contest the ANC.’

We applaud the ANC’s right to say this, but just to warn that it is a harbinger of what the ANC and other parties may try to do put pressure on other people’s and parties’ free speech.

Already its sudden, renewed financial health is being scrutinised as being as a result of its decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice on behalf of Hamas. Remember, the government said it would be using our taxes to pay for the action.

The pre-election period will be fascinating and exasperating in equal measure.

Additionally, there are several other bills awaiting President Ramaphosa's signature which will make them binding legal acts. Their import may have an impact upon our freedom of speech and expression. They are:

National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill - despite serious warnings about its financial viability and lack of clarity on funding, the government ignored public and expert advice. The NHI will give the government greater centralised control over healthcare options, thereby limiting the ability of individuals to make their own healthcare decisions.Please sign the IRR’s  STOP NHI petition

Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Amendment (RICA) Bill - the Bill addresses the unconstitutionality of RICA, but its approach to surveillance and data handling is contentious. The balance between national security and individual privacy rights is delicate, and the bill could tilt towards surveillance infringing on personal freedoms and free speech.

Despite our concerns, free speech is extensive in South Africa. Exercise your free speech: it’s your right!

The FSU SA renews its commitment to freedom of speech, for it is in our words and thoughts that the future is shaped.


Sara Gon

Director of the FSU SA

[Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash]

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