Tag Archives: censorship

ANC silencing debate about power, patriarchy and the president

Brett Murray’s defaced The Spear stands as a monument to intolerance. After thousands of ANC supporters marched to the Goodman where the painting the had once been on display, the gallery has agreed it will not be displayed publicly again.

While representations of the painting now enjoy the ubiquity of the web, what price have we paid for the original painting’s removal from the gallery’s wall? In the aftermath of the fury unleashed by the ANC, will artists still dare to challenge and provoke? Or has South Africa accepted that culture and “acceptability” is something determined only by its ruling party?

It has become impossible for the ANC to mask its totalitarian instincts: if it hadn’t already, the mask slipped this week. When the party feels threatened, the Constitution no longer matters; neither do the courts: it is only the power of the raised fist to invoke fear and unleash retribution that is of consequence.

While opposition was relatively muted — whether in the arts, on the streets or the benches of parliament — the ANC could maintain the pretence of supporting the concept of a constitutional democracy, one in which robust criticism can flourish. Now the party is under siege, both internally (through its vicious faction fights) and externally, thanks to ebbing support, increasing disillusionment at persistent poverty and a growing political opposition.

Will a gallery in South Africa ever again be brave enough (or even be permitted) to display art condemned by the powerful as outrageous? Or will controversial culture be exported – onto the web, and to exhibition spaces abroad? Are our artists to become exiles once more, hounded for daring to question or expose?

Freedom is difficult, sometimes painful. Freedom guarantees being able to question, comment, criticise – even if by doing so insult and outrage is the result. Art must provoke, must make us argue and discuss – even if our feelings get a bit bruised in the process. If we are so fearful of causing offence, we will become blinkered; how can we search for truth, or inspire debate, if we are so afraid of the consequences?

“The norm” needs to be constantly unpicked and explored, and the powerful scrutinised. Not long ago, slavery, denying women the vote and jailing gays was “the norm”. It was through exercising freedom of expression, culturally and politically, that these practices were banished (although tragically in some parts of the world today these practices are still considered acceptable).

In a country in which rape and the abuse of women and children are rampant, it is vital that we have a conversation about gender, power and patriarchy. It is vital that art catalyses a discussion on the way women are treated, and a discussion about the need for us all — male and female, black and white — to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The backlash against The Spear threatens to silence that much-needed discussion. The ANC’s and its supporters’ rhetoric implicitly suggests that commenting or critiquing the president’s version of masculinity and the actions that stem from it is simply taboo – especially if the critic is white.

If genuine freedom and equality for all South Africans is to be attained, no culture should be sacrosanct or off limits. Rather they should be interrogated and explored.

This week South Africa’s largest news site, News24, voluntarily removed an image of The Spear not long after City Press, the Sunday newspaper embroiled in a legal battle with the ANC over the image, took it off its website too.

News24 claimed it was doing this “in a spirit of healing and nation-building”. This is at best misguided. Nation-building is defying those who seek to dictate what is culturally acceptable and what is not. It is standing up to attempts to quash creative expression. Nation-building is fighting for the rights enshrined in our Constitution. In the long term, little can be gained (least of all “healing”) by surrendering to intolerance.

South Africa will not overcome fear by giving into it. The nation can only grow if the right to provoke, question and criticise is vigorously defended.

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Cowardly big business is failing our democracy

Democracy is an ecosystem. Its survival is dependent on many things: a sound legislative framework, an independent judiciary, a vibrant parliament and a responsive government. Beyond this, it also needs a vigilant, proactive civil society, engaged voters and a free media: three elements that ensure government is held accountable for its actions, transparent about what it does and goaded into serving the best of interests of the people – not of those in power.

The Protection of Information bill is one of the gravest threats to this ecosystem. It will critically undermine the ability for parliament, the media and civil society to ensure accountability and transparency in government. The ANC claims this law is to protect state security but, as many before me have pointed out, its wide-ranging mandate means it can easily be used to cover up wrongdoing, severely punishing those who dare to expose it.

Earlier this week, Pick n Pay’s chairman, Gareth Ackerman, spoke out against the bill. He provided a calm and clear explanation of its potential to damage the economy and deter foreign investment. Financial information could be concealed, as could corruption – thereby severely stymieing the economic freedom needed to foster entrepreneurship and attract investors – both essential ingredients required to combat poverty and narrow the vast gulf between rich and poor.

While the dangers of the Info Bill seem self evident, it is startling that so far Ackerman is the only significant businessman who has criticised it. The silence from the rest of business is as deafening as it is inexcusable.

When the prosperity of our economy, our democracy and our country’s future is being put at risk, you would have thought there would have been a cacophony of outrage from businesses – it is in their interest that the bill does not become law, after all. But no. Two of our biggest and most important business groupings, Business Leadership South Africa and Business Unity South Africa have not said a word. Neither have our largest companies.

What can explain this gutless behaviour: is business hoping this is a battle that will be fought by others? Or that the ANC will suddenly override its totalitarian instincts and dump the legislation at the last minute?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that many businesses are simply too afraid to stand up to government because they are reliant upon political goodwill to operate freely. Many businesses unquestioningly and sycophantically signed up to Black Economic Empowerment. This was despite them knowing that BEE had little to with empowering blacks and everything to do with consolidating the ANC’s economic clout: a system designed to massively enrich a tiny yet powerful elite.

Big business thought it would get an easy ride if it cosied up to the ANC. And indeed, with loyal ANC cadres dotting the boards of some of South Africa’s largest companies, business has largely been left alone to get on with making money.

Now they’re really caught in a fix. Even if they are conscious of the long-term dangers of a law like the Info Bill, they are too entrenched in the ANC’s patronage network to speak out about it lest they incur the wrath of the party’s titans and lose business deals and political support as a result.

Our nation’s corporations should have been more careful when they made this Faustian pact with the ANC in the Nineties. In the afterglow of the first democratic elections it must have seemed pragmatic and sensible to cuddle up to the new snouts at the trough. But with the ANC’s non-racial values long squandered by the craven despots that call the shots in the movement now, the folly of such an approach has been exposed.

If the Info Bill is thwarted, it will certainly not be thanks to big business. It will be in spite of it: in spite of a group of companies that have cosily conspired with the ANC to maintain a status quo of wealth in the hands of a few, at the expense of the countless millions who remain economically oppressed.

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Thought Leader’s thought police: M&G “poep”-scared of Zuma?

On Wednesday evening I posted a piece on my Thought Leader blog I titled “The poephol shall govern!” (a playful pun on an expression from the Freedom Charter) about Zuma’s inevitable accession to the presidency.

The first paragraph went as follows:
Let’s face it. Short of an Mbeki groupie’s assassination attempt on Zuma (which is unlikely to happen considering the R1 million of taxpayer’s money spent each month protecting the man), come April, the great man will be state president.
I discovered on Thursday that without informing me, the Mail & Guardian Online (who run Thought Leader) had changed the the title to the rather inane “Zuma shall govern …”. In addition to this, the first paragraph had been censored so that it now simply reads:
Let’s face it, come April, the great man will be state president.
Not quite what I meant, really.
So I raised this issue with the dear people at the M&G Online who told me that I had flouted editorial guidelines. I was told:
Insinuating that Mbeki-ites would want to assassinate Zuma, or that the only way he could be prevented from becoming president is by assassinating him, is irresponsible and inciteful.
Furthermore I was informed that:
You also claimed the ANC  “quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system and the very concept of the rule of law and legal processes”. This is a widespread perception, but hasn’t been proven, thus making such a statement libelous.
So this is what I responded with:
Firstly the statement was tongue-in-cheek — far from inciting anyone it was instead poking fun at the fervent dislike of Zuma that Mbeki supporters have. But tongue-in-cheek notwithstanding, I fail to see how pointing to the inevitability of a Zuma presidency (with an assassination being the only thing stopping that) is irresponsible or inciteful — it merely acknowledges that Zuma’s overwhelming support (both amongst the electorate and within a powerful camp in the ANC) will propel him to the presidency regardless of the legal issues he faces — something that I explore and justify in the rest of the post.
By claiming that only an assasination will prevent him from becoming president I am not at all inciting or encouraging people to kill him. Far from it. I’m simply saying that I believe with such certainty that he will become president — and that the only way forseeable way that this would not occur would be if someone assasinated him (which I further point out is extremely unlikely to occur — for obvious reasons).
I  then dealt with the accusation of libel:
I believe the second piece you mention to have been misinterpreted.
The entire paragraph reads:
But even if he has been a victim of Mbeki’s Machiavellian machinations that does not justify absolution. Advocating such a sinister agenda illustrates how absolutely desperate certain elements of the ANC are to ensure that their man gets to the top. So much personal interest is at stake that they will, it seems, quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system and the very concept of the rule of law and legal processes, which form key components of our constitutional democracy, to ensure that Zuma moves into the Tuynhuys.
Firstly as you will see above, I reference “certain elements of the ANC” and not the ANC as a whole. (Since I do not name who these elements are — obviously Zuma’s high-ranking supporters — it’s unlikely that the M&G or myself will face libel action from these “elements”).

But furthermore this can’t be libellous because I say “they will, it seems ” — not “they are” — implying that it would appear that the certain elements (i.e. Zuma supporters) “will” (i.e. are prepared to — the use of the future tense means that they haven’t necessarily done so yet) “quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system etc….” — the belief that they are prepared to do so being based on on my analysis and interpretation of the legal obstructionism (discussed in great detail elsewhere in the post) being used to prevent Zuma going to trial.

To read the paragraph as a whole it is clear that I am stating that by promoting Zuma’s absolution, those within the ANC who adovocate such an agenda are prepared to “quite happily ride roughshod over the judicial system etc….” — and this is a legitimate and not libellous sentiment because it is based on the hypothesis that by wanting to prevent Zuma from standing trial, those “certain elements” are setting a precedent of Zuma being above the law  and thus are riding roughshod over the judicial system which implements the law — simply by being demanding that Zuma be an exception to it and its potential consequences.

It seems that gone are the days when the M&G relished its role as cheeky, feisty fighter for free-speech. Who would have thought that they were this frightened of Jacob Zuma et al?

As I explained to the M&G Online, I take the words I write and the meaning they convey very seriously. While I understand defamatory content is not acceptable on Thought Leader I think it is vital to preserve the spirit of free speech and vibrant, possibly controversial opinion so long as it explained and justified — which I believe my blog post (or at least the one I submitted) attempted to do. To censor a valid contribution runs the risk of inducing self-censorship, which can only damage robust debate in this country.

  • Read the uncensored version of The poephol shall govern! here.

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