Freedom of expression and respect

2013-07-03 00:00

A STORY is told about a conversation between an American and a Russian during the Cold War.

“In my country, we are so free that I can stand in front of the White House, where our head of state resides, and shout ‘f***k the president’,” said the American.

The Russian retorted: “I don’t know why that is something to brag about. I can also stand in front of your head of state’s residence and say the same thing.”

It is very likely that the story was crafted as part of the propaganda war between the world’s two superpowers at the time.

Whatever the basis of the story is, it is an emphatic endorsement of the right to freedom of expression.

Ever since socialite Kenny Kunene decided to write an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, there has been a counterweight of arguments against him. It was to be expected.

What is unacceptable is the situation when having and expressing an opinion about the head of your country is treated as dissent in itself.

As the American in the story hinted, freedom of expression is really about being able to say publicly what you want about the head of your state, without suffering undue consequences.

To say, as some have said, that it is against African culture for someone of Kunene’s age to express the sentiments he did, and to do so using the language he did, is to hide behind culture and marginalise everyone who is not part of that culture.

It is equally cultural arrogance to say, as some have said, that respect is earned, not naturally derived.

This may be true in Eurocentric circles, but it is not a universal rule.

In some communities, respect is lost rather than earned. All human beings, by virtue of their humanness, are guaranteed respect until they do something that makes it not so.

In other settings, respect comes with age. The point here is that how and why people are respected, and how they and others respond to the perception of not being respected, differs from one community to the next.

This does not mean that the head of state is immune to a critique of his tenure or being criticised by his subjects. In fact, it should be the duty of citizens to maintain a hawk’s eye on those they give the power to govern.

When subjects do their part, it is incumbent on those given the stewardship of the state to stop thinking they are beyond criticism, or that it is not enough for one to be a citizen — they claim one needs another qualification, such as a struggle record or the right skin colour, to say what one thinks about how the country is being governed.

What’s more, government critics do not need to be right or articulate. It is not an exam; it is a democracy.

A test of our country’s democratic credentials is not whether only the so-called “right” people speak their minds.

It is when those who in our eyes are least qualified know they can have their say, without fearing that they are making a career-threatening move.

That is what the Freedom Charter meant when it said South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

• Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is a freelance journalist and former editor of The Witness.

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