S.African photographer pursues hate speech case

Apr 11, 2012, 3:23 PM

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) – Celebrated 82-year-old South African photojournalist Alf Kumalo climbed the courthouse stairs slowly on Wednesday, determined to pursue his hate speech case against a white man he accuses of insulting him with an especially potent racial slur.

“We were supposed to have moved on from this kind of racist thing,” said Kumalo, who is black.

Kumalo earned fame for photographing the brutality and injustice of apartheid. He also photographed South Africa’s first all-race election and the swearing-in of Nelson Mandela as its first black president. It’s been 18 years since that historic vote and inauguration. But racism endures. The evidence can be found in a stream of media reports _ white hotel owners refusing service to black tourists, white gym members shouting racial epithets at fellow members who are black.

In an interview Wednesday, Kumalo would say little about his own experience before he gets a court ruling. But he confirmed local newspaper reports quoting witnesses to the confrontation early this year at a seafood restaurant in Johannesburg.

Another customer, identified in court papers as Denis Athanasopoulos, reportedly became agitated as he watched a tennis match on the restaurant’s TV and began shouting profanities. Staff asked Athanasopoulos to restrain himself, witnesses said. When he persisted, Kumalo, who had been dining with family, intervened, and Athanasopoulos allegedly turned on the photographer.

At the courthouse, posters offer a list of terms considered hate speech to educate South Africans about their rights. They urge victims of hate speech and other discrimination to “fight back legally in the equality court.”

White as well as black South Africans have made use of equality courts, which are civil rather than criminal forums that consider matters of discrimination. Last year, a white lobby group took the head of the youth wing of the governing African National Congress party to equality court over the black leader’s repeated singing of a protest song from the apartheid era that calls for whites to be shot. The equality court judge outlawed the song, calling it hate speech.

South Africa is not the only nation that uses the courts to try to curb racist speech. Last month, a French court convicted a prominent perfume-maker, Jean-Paul Guerlain, who is white, of making anti-black comments on national TV and fined him the equivalent of $8,000. In Britain last month, a white student who mocked a black soccer player on Twitter was ordered jailed for inciting racial hatred.

Human rights lawyer Sipho Mantula said Kumalo was setting a prominent example, showing South Africans how to use the courts to deal with racism.

Sello Hatang, spokesman for the foundation established by Mandela to promote racial tolerance and unity, said, “We’ve come a long way… But we need to be talking some more.”

Kumalo went to police to file a criminal case of “crimen injuria,” which pertains to hurting another’s dignity, At a hearing in that separate and ongoing criminal case last month, Athanasopoulos and his attorney refused to comment to The Associated Press.

Athanasopoulos did not show up at equality court Wednesday. It was not clear he’d received notice of the court date.

Though he no longer works for a daily newspaper, Kumalo, a mentor to younger photographers, still carries a camera with him everywhere he goes. He took several photographs of the confrontation at the restaurant, he said.

Kumalo said it may take another few generations for attitudes to change in South Africa. But he said South Africans should not just wait, but take action against racism.

“If people see the seriousness of our reaction to this, maybe then they’ll stop doing it,” he said. “Our grandchildren will see the change. Real change.”

Then, gentlemanly in a fedora and dark jacket, camera slung from his shoulder, he headed down the courthouse steps.


Donna Bryson can be reached at

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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S.African photographer pursues hate speech case