While legal experts have long warned about the dangers of posting certain views in comments on their social media pages, it appears that the law is finally catching up to them.
This is according to Verlie Oosthuizen, head of Social Media Law at Shepstone & Wylie, who noted that South Africa’s legal system can often be slow to catch up with the fast-paced world of social media.
“It has taken a while for the judgments to catch up with our advice – probably because court rolls are clogged, and court cases are expensive – but we can expect a lot more in the near future,” she said.
Oosthuizen noted that while there are not many Labour Court cases about dismissals for social media utterances, one which was recently reported confirmed what lawyers have long suspected – racial rants on Facebook will get you fired.
Case in the spotlight
The case involved a policeman who posted a “vitriolic racist comment” on the Facebook page of Mr Julius Malema, said Oosthuizen.
“He did it at the time that Malema was the leader of the ANC Youth League which gives you an idea of how long it takes for matters to move through the courts,” she said.
“One of the more inflammatory statements in the post was “…we’ll teach whites some lesson. We’ll commit a genocide on them. I hate whites…”
“The judge commented that he was alarmed that Malema had not done anything about the comments and explained that a journalist had come across the comments and written an article about it.
“Initially, investigators into the complaint battled to access the page as the policeman had restricted access to it, however a simple Google search eventually solved the case. All sorts of technical arguments came to nothing and the policeman was dismissed.”
According to Oosthuizen, the court found that he had “used disgraceful and racist language constituting hate speech, he did so in his capacity as a police officer, and he did so on a quasi-public forum accessible to potentially thousands of Facebook users… there is no doubt that dismissal was a fair sanction.”
This judgement shows that it is now cleat that courts will not tolerate the use of social media as a platform to vent discriminatory views, said Oosthuizen.
As a result, she warned not to expect any sympathy if you indulge in this type of behaviour.