In the era of post-truth, alternative facts, and fake news, hate, hateful, inflammatory, and dangerous speech pervade the African continent as never before. In recent decades, many African communities have become hotbeds of mayhem, social violence, and unrest. This is sometimes caused by political differences, but also religious and economic competition play obvious roles. Fueling such frequent and destructive episodes are hate and extreme speech inspired by the active production and dissemination of public speech acts designed to injure (emotionally and/or physically) individuals or a group because of religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, skin color, or even political affiliation. The African conversational environment is suffused with dangerous speech practices aimed at religious, ethnic, national, or sexual others. Stereotyping persons and groups, whether minority or majority segments of society, is on the rise as the postcolonial states are increasingly unable to meet citizens’ demands for public services, security, gainful employment, and sustained socioeconomic development. As resources diminish and competition and desperation grow, extreme speech has become a strategy of management (for some politicians and state actors) and competition for scarce public goods (for a visible segment of the population).

The realization that free speech has an important role in building liveable, vibrant, and peaceful communities and societies but can also generate, or rather degenerate into, extreme and dangerous communication is slowly dawning on various African governments. Increasingly, ethnoreligious conflagrations have literally set communities, for example, in the Jos area of Plateau State in Nigeria, alight because of strong, negative stereotyping disseminated in speech or writing. In South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, the harm of hate speech is an ever-present reality the state is beginning to grapple with through legal protocols.

The South African “Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill” is based on the constitutional provision providing “that everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” The Bill recognizes that the constitutionally foregrounded and protected right of freedom of expression does not extend to “i) propaganda for war, ii) incitement of imminent violence; or iii) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.” The problem with the Bill in this respect, as some have pointed out, is that it prohibits the expression of strong—even if factual—negative opinions about a religion, an ethnic nationality, or race, and explicitly brands these as “hate speech.” Perhaps because of South Africa’s highly racialized history and society, this Bill offers the widest possible definition of hate speech, as any communication—gestures, display, expression, written, illustrated, visual, or other descriptive matter, oral statement, representation or electronically mediated, stored or retrievable—that is publicly accessible and advocates hatred toward any person or group of persons that

demonstrates a clear intention . . . [to] incite others to harm any person or group of persons, whether or not such person or group of persons is harmed; or stir up violence against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any person or group of persons, based on race gender, sex, which includes intersex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, religion, belief, culture, language, birth, disability, HIV status, nationality, gender identity, albinism or occupation or trade. (Section 4 (1)(a))

This definition makes no distinction between hate speech and extreme speech, the latter of which is a public statement that may rupture the social fabric of trust and harmony through the incitement of violence or serious infraction on equal dignity and social respect. The justification for a legal mechanism that hedges in free speech—according to the South African Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), for example—is to create a balance between free speech and law and social order, since the state is vested with the authority and power to monitor society because society on its own is incapable of self-regulation.

As broad as it seems, the merit of the Bill is its focus on “persons” and “groups of persons” as bearers of rights as well as duties and responsibilities. While persons and groups of persons can be protected from hate and harmful speech, ethnicities and traditions, nationalities and religions are excluded from the list of protected entities. Whether this exclusion is obvious to nonlegal experts is yet to be seen. For many Africans, however, it is indeed difficult to direct hateful speech at a collective, social institution, state symbol or authority, or tradition, such as ethnicity or religion, without at the same time harming or attacking the integrity and dignity of those who subscribe to the tradition or belong to the ethnicity, religion, or social institution at issue. Experience indicates that those who are homophobic or xenophobic do not make abstract speech gestures against homosexuality as a sexual orientation unmoored from homosexual persons and individuals; they often target their speech acts at members of homosexual communities. Similarly, in South Africa, xenophobic speeches are often anchored on the bodies and properties of foreign nationals. The legal distinction that prohibits hate speech against rights-bearing individuals or groups but not against their beliefs fails to consider how hate speech is an embodied, social practice.

In some African countries—such as Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya—there exists no explicit legal protocols dealing with hate speech. As such, the distinction between natural persons as bearers of constitutionally protected right to dignity and social institutions and traditions as social facts not immune from criticisms is porous or blurry. Under such fuzzy circumstance, hate speech is usually directed against persons—rather than instutions or traditions—with disagreeable social traits or conditions or lifestyles. In the absence of legal protections which anti-hate speech laws may offer, certain persons belonging to minority groups such as gays and lesbian are frequently ridiculed, abused and even threatened with death. In Muslim-majority northern Nigeria, for example, a number of non-Muslims were murdered after being accused of touching the Qur’an, an act considered by many Muslims as constituting a religious insult or blasphemy. From the perspective of perpetrators of such violence, there is no distinction between an alleged offense against the Qur’an (a religious object) and one against believers (as bearers of rights and duties). For many believers, a perceived offense or abuse against their faith or any of the religion’s historic figures, venerated objects, or practices is deemed an offense against believers, too. The inability of states to insist on and enforce a distinction between institutions or traditions and persons creates further confusion.

However, states have a few administrative tools available in dealing with hate speech, such as targeting the medium of dissemination for managerial control. In Nigeria, a radio or television station that broadcasts speech deemed socially harmful because it is capable of inciting ridicule or harm may face closure and/or a fine. In this way, administrative bodies suppress hateful communication. Countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria vest these control mechanisms in state agencies; in South Africa, public speech is regulated through the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), whose duties were formerly under the Department of Home Affairs. The IBA has constitutionally guaranteed independence from the state. To exercise administrative controls beyond the broadcast industry, the IBA merged in 2000 with the South African Telecommunications Authority to become the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). After 2006, ICASA evolved to exercise holistic enforcement and compliance responsibilities including inspection, complaints handling, dispute resolution, regulation, and adjudication. Extreme speech disseminated through electronic and telecommunication channels is first investigated by ICASA.

There are many drivers of hate speech in Africa. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the religiosity of Africans. The demographic strength of monotheistic traditions in Africa has created a continent at war with, and for, its own soul. Religious competition and intolerance between Christians, Muslims, and adherents of other faith traditions have pitched one faith community against another in the pursuit of followers and scarce material resources. Religious formations and networks have become powerful socioeconomic and political actors and institutions, increasingly contesting and restructuring civic society and spaces. In democratic dispensations, they influence political contestations and outcomes. African religious communities drive a binary conceptualization of complex social realities. Extreme religious beliefs and adherence foreclose and exclude inclusivity by promoting exclusionary thinking and practices, creating outsiders and insiders with no middle ground.

All this has implications for using hate speech to compete for power and presence. The conflation of ethnicity and religion in some parts of Africa produces intense ethnoreligious stereotyping. Scholars often refer to the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity from the northern hemisphere to the global south, with Africa accounting for more Christians than Europe and North America combined. Ironically, this shift has coincided with an increase in the use of hate speech among Christians against minority and/or non-Christian groups, such as gay and lesbian communities. The paradox is that strong religious beliefs and zeal have produced and justified equally strong hateful and injurious public speech acts against those who do not subscribe to the believers’ faith. For many religious believers, maintaining strong and extreme speech practices is a way to publicly affirm religious truth.

The proliferation of communications technologies raises new questions about hate speech regulation. Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp have become powerful and destructive devices for spreading untruths that fuel religious, ethnic, and electoral violence in Africa, for example in Central African Republic and Zimbabwe. At the root of such incidents is the inability or impracticability of criticizing an individual or group belonging to a tradition, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, or institution while respecting the beliefs that undergird those lifestyle choices and institutions.