A Nigerian human rights group known as the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, or SERAP, has petitioned the ICC’s OTP to look into allegations of inciteful hate speech committed by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in South Africa. Bensouda has opted to investigate the xenophobic attacks that have said to have resulted from Zwelithini’s speech.
In a March gathering in Pongola, northern KwaZulu-Natal, Zwelithini talked about the inconvenience that foreigners, such as Nigerians and other Africans living in South Africa, have posed to locals in his country. Allegedy, he told gatherers that “foreigners must pack their bags and go home.” Not long after in April, xenophobic violence flared up in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, killing at least seven people and displacing thousands more.
SERAP, in its petition, argues that Zwelithini’s hate speech created the conditions for this violence to occur, crimes of which the group asserts are crimes against humanity that violate the Rome Statute. In addition to Zwelithini’s words, SERAP argues that South African law enforcement is complicit in the violence, as they failed to take steps to stop the abuse against non-nationals. Police Minister Nathi Nheleko was present when Zwelithini made his speech, yet no steps have been taken by the police to counteract the speech’s effects.
Given that the government itself has been implicated in this xenophobia and that law enforcement has failed to act to protect non-national targets, SERAP argues that the conditions are present to justify a proprio motu investigation by Mrs. Fatou Bensouda. The national judiciary is likely to be unwilling to try Zwelithini for his incitements to hatred, thus allowing the ICC to step in under the principle of complementarity and as a court of last resort.
This case will be interesting to watch, especially since Chief Prosecutor Bensouda has decided to look into the situation already. As we have seen in many cases, incitements to violence have been powerful weapons used in many cases to cause mass amounts of violence. In Rwanda, the media was a huge reason why so many regular Rwandans acted out on the hate speech directed at Hutus, resulting in a massive amount of violence in only 100 days. In Cote d’Ivoire, as well, hate speech was generated by political leaders and the media, ultimately leading to an eruption of violence against non-Ivorians. The power of hate speech to incite mass violence, in light of these past cases, surely must not be underestimated in the current situation in South Africa. Given their history of apartheid, any attempt at categorizing different South African citizens is frightening and should not be ignored.