Dodgy statistics a means to an end
A hate speech complaint lodged against Africa Check earlier this year was little more than an attempt to harass, intimidate and stifle debate. For its authors, facts mean little and "research" is merely a means to an end.
South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. The most recent crime statistics show that for the first time in six years there has been an increase in the number and rate of murders and attempted murders. On average 45 people are killed a day.
Many of Africa Check's reports and blog posts about South Africa have focused on claims made about crime.
We have exposed attempts by the police and the president to downplay rising crime levels. We have explored where murder really happens in South Africa. We have examined the horror of farm murders and looked at the politics of crime numbers. We have tried to help our readers understand crime statistics - and also how they can be manipulated.
Two articles stand out for the threatening, misogynistic and racist backlash that they engendered.
The first was written by an Africa Check contributor, Nechama Brodie, and fact-checked claims by the musician Steve Hofmeyr that white South Africans are being murdered "like flies" in a "white genocide". The report found that, while South Africa's murder rate was indeed horrifyingly high, Hofmeyr's claims about the numbers of white murders were grossly exaggerated.
The second was an opinion piece written by Lisa Vetten, one of South Africa's leading experts on gender violence. It was an indictment of attempts by Hofmeyr and his occasional collaborator, Sunette Bridges, to "make light of intimate femicide in favour of racial scare-mongering".
(Bridges refers to herself on her website as a "43-year old Mother of 5, Afrikaner, Artist [and] Writer" and says she is "often described as a Human Rights Activist".)
The nub of Vetten's argument, as I summed it up in the introductory blurb I wrote for her article, was that: "Claims that white women are likely to be murdered by 'unknown black males' amount to racial scare-mongering... The vast majority of women who are murdered in South Africa die at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends and lovers."
OF "BITCHES" AND "LIBTARDS"
Neither Vetten's article nor Brodie's report downplayed the violence of crime in South Africa. If anything, they served to emphasise the prevalence of crime across sections of South Africa that, often, do not make it to the front pages of newspapers.
The articles were met with a stream of vitriol from a vocal handful of Hofmeyr and Bridges's Twitter and Facebook followers, many of whom appeared not to have read the pieces in the first place.
Some of the milder insults included references to Brodie and Vetten as "bitches" and "libtards", the latter being a schoolboyish contraction of "liberal retard". Africa Check was accused of being in the pay of everyone from the ANC and "the Communists" to the Freemasons. (You can find out more about our funding here.)
One man, who described himself as "God-fearing", wrote to me: "I hope and pray that soon one of your children gets murdered by your black criminal friends so that you can feel the pain." Emphasising his point, he signed off, "Regards hope one of your children gets murdered soon."
In early April this year, Hofmeyr, Bridges and the Freedom Front's Amanda de Lange lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) against Africa Check, Brodie, Vetten and the Medical Research Council's Professor Naeema Abrahams, whose published research Vetten had referred to in her article.
They argued that we were "perpetuating a distorted view of femicide in South Africa", that we had "advocated hate speech and racial discrimination against white South African men" and that we had "degraded the character of white South African men, not only in South Africa, but worldwide". They also demanded that Brodie and Vetten apologise to all "white South African men".
AN OBSCENE DISTORTION
The Hofmeyr and Bridges complaint demonstrated the grotesque lengths that its authors were prepared to go to in order to prove their thesis that black men are more violent than white men.
Perhaps the greatest obscenity lies in the evidence that they presented to the Commission.
It consisted of two death lists - for that is the only way that they can be described - which were apparently compiled by Sunette Bridges. One gives the names of "the" 49 white South African women who, according to the complainants, had been "murdered by their husbands, boyfriends and lovers from 1993 to the present date".
The other contains 616 names, purportedly of "white South African women… murdered by 'unknown' black men".
Nowhere in the complaint is there any explanation of how the names were sourced, how they were evaluated and cross-checked, how the victims and perpetrators were classified as "black" or "white" and whether the families gave permission for the names to be used by Bridges in the course of her so-called "research".
As we went through the lists while preparing our submission to the SAHRC, we found several names had been duplicated, often with slight variations in spelling. In at least one instance a murder that had occurred outside South Africa was included. In others, people who had been victims of crime - but were still alive - were named. And, in a significant number of cases, no suspects had been identified by police, making it impossible to determine the race of the killers or their relationship to the victim.
The lists were a calculated and callous exercise in dishonesty and distortion, compiled with little care for accuracy and even less care and respect for the dead whose names became such easy tools for propaganda.
In my view, the complaint was little more than a vexatious attempt to harass, intimidate and stifle debate. Its logic was curiously contorted too. We summed it up in our submission to the SAHRC: "On the one hand [Hofmeyr, Bridges et al] publicly advance a discriminatory race-based theory, passed off as fact without any scientific basis. When their theory is proved to be wrong (or at the very least seriously flawed), they brand it as discriminatory. In effect what [they] argue is that it is racially discriminatory not to accept their racially discriminatory point of view."
The SAHRC investigated and dismissed the complaint this week, finding that Africa Check had not demonstrated any "intent to harm, be hurtful or to incite hatred" and that the comments made by us were not only "fair and accurate reporting in the public interest", but were also "protected comment" in terms of South Africa's constitutionally entrenched right to freedom of expression.
A lack of statistical rigour, and open contempt for scientific method, clearly explains some of the glaring weaknesses in the arguments presented by Hofmeyr and Bridges. For them data is a means to an end. It is there, not to illuminate, but to be manipulated, toyed with, distorted and, in some instances, manufactured to perpetuate a myopic, race-obsessed view of crime.
Violent crime affects all South Africans, irrespective of race. All of us have been scarred by it in some way and far too many lives have been lost and ruined. The numbers games, matchbox calculations and easy manipulations that Hofmeyr and Bridges dabble in do little to add to the debate about crime in South Africa. The only serve to cheapen and debase the lives lost.
Julian Rademeyer is the editor of Africa Check, a non-profit fact-checking website. Follow them on Twitter @AfricaCheck
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.