‘AI threatens democracies everywhere’


‘AI threatens democracies everywhere’

ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to Eileen Carter, the dynamic head of the Human Rights Commission in the Eastern Cape, about the enduring challenges of race and ethnicity and the dangers Big Tech poses to elections worldwide this year.


EILEEN Carter is Afrikaans-speaking. This was the first surprise. The second is that if I had put on my walking shoes and hiked along the beach, I could have had coffee with her. We are practically neighbours in East London.

“Our job description is captured in the constitution. We are responsible for the oversight of the Bill of Rights, and we do it without fear or favour," she says.

And then she adds laughingly: “And everyone hates us equally. From supporters of Steve Hofmeyr to those of Julius Malema. We have had cases against everyone. Against the government over service delivery and against private businesses. Against Cosatu and for Cosatu. When I worked in Limpopo, we sometimes worked with the Freedom Front Plus and sometimes we had to take them on around issues.

“The type of work we do requires a lot of human resources," she says. “We monitor what is happening on the ground, and when we pick up something that conflicts with the Bill of Rights, we investigate it. But with the temperature rising in South Africa, it feels like we never have enough hands to cover everything.

“On the one hand, you fight for people's right not to go hungry, but then on the other, there's a crisis with water or someone engaging in online hate speech. Then you have to address that, but that again takes time away from issues like disinformation, human rights and technology. These developing issues will become increasingly significant in the long term."

Then she chuckles again. “So, when people ask what the Human Rights Commission does, I want to say, ‘where should I begin?'"

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On the ground

After leading the commission's legal commission in Limpopo, Carter's move to the Eastern Cape means she has worked in South Africa's two poorest provinces.

“There are cross-cutting issues in both provinces: the major one being equity and more specifically race and ethnicity. Then disability. And then there's systemic inequality. Impoverished people depend heavily on access to basic services like hospitals, clinics and roads. With the advent of democracy, a lot of money was poured into certain areas, but many things were never addressed, never fixed," she says.

For example, only 20% of the roads are tarred in the Eastern Cape. There are tremendous infrastructure backlogs in these old homeland provinces. The Western Cape, for instance, didn't have that. Their roads were better. But here in the former homeland provinces, the infrastructure backlogs stemming from apartheid days continue to contribute significantly to human rights issues — from pit latrines to education."

She explains that the commission in Limpopo had to handle many issues related to ethnicity. “We don't talk about tribalism because that's a colonial concept," she says. But if you understand the cultural differences in Limpopo … sometimes there is a lot of tension between the Venda and the Mashangani, and the Tsonga speakers and the Sepedi speakers. There was a lot of violence during my time."

Hunger and poverty

In the Eastern Cape, poverty and hunger are major issues. None of us understands the extent of the situation. So many human rights are violated when children die of hunger. And if our children are hungry, we've done many things wrong. One of the biggest issues is coordination between government departments. The fact that we return money earmarked for poverty to the Treasury is shocking. It's important to adhere to the Public Finance Management Act but we also need to make sure we use the money intended to help people in such desperate need.

“We are now working on a plan to ensure better coordination. Part of this is to train municipal managers and mayors in human rights baseline budgeting. We need to teach people to use a human rights lens when planning. Basic rights must be covered first. Water, food, medical assistance and not only the niceties like new cars for municipal managers."

But why must people be trained to look through a human rights lens, I want to know. Isn't it obvious that you prioritise citizens when you are a government that says it stands for a better life for all"? Isn't the most basic thing to ensure that people don't die of hunger before you buy new cars for officials?

“Look, I think everyone wants to do the right thing. No one wants to see children die. Sometimes, you have to get everyone on the same page and pull the different threads together. I don't believe people are malicious because it's not what I see on the ground. Many MECs come to my office who don't need to do that.

“I have a good relationship with the executive in the province. I believe in forging alliances, not enemies. I believe in holding hands and seeing how we can strengthen each other. The government and the Human Rights Commission serve the same client. Will it help the children of the province if we make enemies? Or will we help them if we work by building alliances? That is the key question."

Eileen Carter.
Eileen Carter.

Close to the heart

Carter tells of one of the cases in Limpopo that is particularly close to her heart.

“It was a big case for me. During the pandemic, Mr Chase [real name Hamilton Mkhothokgo] was a student and a comedian who said on Twitter that Covid should eradicate all the Mashangani because they have nothing to contribute to society anyway.

“We filed a case against Mr Chase in the equality court for hate speech. He argued that it was a joke and that he had the right to freedom of speech. The court did not agree. You cannot use freedom of speech to justify infringing on others' human rights and violating the Bill of Rights.

“It was one of the decisions that meant a lot to me. It took place in this dusty little court and ultimately the finding was such a powerful affirmation of human rights. The second respondent was the Royal Council of the aMashangani and winning that day made a difference. In a country with many languages, ethnicities and provinces, we must do everything to strengthen diversity and not detract from each other."

Big new challenge

The big new human rights issue worldwide, says Carter, is the impact of generative AI and disinformation.

“In the next year, there are more than 80 elections worldwide. It is a critical year for democracy and will also be the first time fake news, disinformation, algorithms and artificial intelligence will potentially have a significant influence."

“There are fundamental questions about what the effect of this will be on people's right to privacy, as well as the right to make decisions without being influenced by disinformation or algorithms to make choices in a certain way. They are influenced without even realising they are being influenced.

“It's an exciting time ahead but it's also a very worrying time because we see how Big Tech plays an ever-increasing role in society. We need to be vigilant when our elections come around because many online activists may use nefarious methods to influence the outcome."

Deep fake

She takes out her phone and shows me a video snippet in which she speaks fluent German.

“I don't speak a word of German. I created this using AI. I recorded a clip in Afrikaans and fed it into an AI application, and what came out on the other side was me speaking German. My mouth forms the words. My intonation and inflection are all there in a language I don't speak. And I did it in three minutes.

“Unfortunately, from the beginning, Tech has taken an absolute misogynistic approach (hatred or prejudice against women). Everything has a trajectory. I always talk about the evolution of human rights abuses.

“Take the concept of rape. You know, initially, rape was not a crime against women; it was a crime against the father of the woman or her husband because women were their possessions. So, initially, it was a crime that diminished the value of their property. Only centuries later did it become a crime against women. Everything evolves.

“And that evolution is now playing out online. I recently conducted a survey with women in the public eye — MECs, judges and so forth. Everyone indicated that they had been targeted online at some point. And when women see how others are being targeted, they withhold their own opinions.

“So, what we see happening online is an echo chamber predominantly of white, male voices. It takes us back 50 or 100 years with people who look and sound the same promoting certain narratives. And if we don't stand up for the right of people to participate in online discourse without being bullied or falsely influenced, especially with the upcoming elections, then a crisis is looming. Misogyny 2.0."

The future of SA

“I am acutely aware of my background, I am acutely aware of my privilege and I am acutely aware that I should never try to have a white saviour complex," says Carter.

“I believe in the future of this country but it is so important for each of us to understand where we come from. People are quick to talk and point fingers without spending the necessary time understanding the context of South Africa. We must respect where we come from and the struggles most people in this country have endured to get where we are. Then we can contribute.

“I am constantly trying to learn from my colleagues and the communities where I work because I know so little about the hardship many of our communities face. Then, I try to use my human rights training to amplify their human rights. There is nothing special about me. I am just a tool."


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