The South African Jewish community is waiting for an apology from a leading trade unionist after the country’s Equality Court unexpectedly ruled that Bongani Masuku had been guilty of hate speech directed at Jews.

British academic David Hirsh, who gave expert witness testimony in the case, said the judgment was vitally important “because it blows a hole in the extreme left argument that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism”. Charisse Zeifert, spokesperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which brought the case against Masuku, told the Jewish News: “All we ever wanted was an apology, nothing more”.

She said that any such apology, according to the judge’s ruling, would have to be agreed between the Deputies and COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), Masuku’s trade union. But it is widely expected that he and the union will appeal against the ruling, the second such made in South Africa against him.

 

The Masuku case dates back to March 2009 when he gave a speech at Witwatersrand University (“Wits”) in which, among other things, he threatened “Zionists” on South African campuses, said that COSATU activists would make their lives hell, and that Zionists should leave democratic South Africa.

He threatened violence “‘with immediate effect,” against families in South Africa whose children had moved to Israel and served in its army. He threatened concrete harm against people who lived in Orange Grove, known as a Jewish neighbourhood, who did not agree with him about Israeli politics.

The Deputies reported his remarks, made during the annual Israel Apartheid Week, to the country’s Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which ruled that Masuku’s remarks and others made publicly by him before the Wits address, amounted to hate speech. His comments, said the Commission, had incited violent and hatred against Jewish students who were present at the campus meeting.

Despite being ordered to apologise, Masuku refused to do so, and at the end of 2009 Britain’s own University and College Union (UCU) invited him as a special guest to its annual Congress to discuss boycott against Israel.

An attempt by academic Michael Yudkin to get UCU to dissociate itself from Masuku and his anti-Semitism met no success — the delegates effectively backed his appearance at the British event.

Eventually the South African Human Rights Commission took Masuku to court. In February 2017, in a seven-day hearing, expert witnesses — including David Hirsh — gave testimony as to the nature of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Mr Justice Moshidi, sitting in the Equality Court of the South Gauteng High Court, said that the impugned statements by Masuku were “hurtful; harmful; incite harm and propagate hatred; and amount to hate speech as envisaged in section 10 of the Equality Act 4 of 2000”. Both Masuku and COSATU were ordered to tender an unconditional apology to the Jewish community within 30 days of the order. Masuku insisted throughout the hearing that he was making his statements about Zionists, and not Jews, but the judge, whose ruling has just been announced, dismissed such claims.

David Hirsh said that the ruling will have come as a shock to Masuku and COSATU. “All along, they have insisted that the allegation of anti-Semitism was not merely mistaken, but that it was dishonest”.

Hirsh added: “In a country where too many people don’t have enough to eat or a roof over their heads, COSATU chose to spend millions of rand, the hard-earned union dues of South African workers, to prove that it was just fine to tell people that Jews in South Africa were Nazis and to threaten to make their lives hell”.