Artistic freedom is a litmus test of our constitutional rights

2013-07-28 14:00

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In October 2000, after overturning the Broadcasting Act in Zimbabwe which guaranteed a monopoly to the state broadcaster, ZBC, I obtained a transmitter in Joburg and set up the first private radio station, Capital Radio.

Within two weeks, the president had issued a decree outlawing the possession of transmitters and the police descended on the station in a hotel in downtown Harare, shutting it down and sending me into hiding.

This was the culmination of a few years of constitutional activism and, as I packed my bags and fled the country, it was with great hope I moved back to the South Africa whose birth I had felt so much a part of as an activist during the Defiance Campaign of the late 1980s, and whose incredibly progressive Constitution had inspired me.

After fleeing the country of my birth, I finally felt able to live a “normal” life in South Africa – to pursue my artistic, business and personal goals, free of any concern that my life, liberty or pursuit of happiness would ever again be constrained by the state.

That was, of course, until I was rudely jolted out of my reverie when our film, Of Good Report, was banned by the censors last week.

Petronella Tshuma in a scene from Of Good Report, which was banned last week by the Film and Publication Board.

As I have always been so sure of the protections afforded me by our Constitution, a film like this one being banned had never entered my consciousness.

I had watched many cuts of the film with my wife, who is a social worker specialising in child protection, and our sole discussion was whether this film was good enough to go all the way to the top.

The possibility that it could be construed as something other than an extraordinarily well-made film, reflecting on a very tough social issue, never entered our heads.

Cut to the Supernova Cinema at Suncoast Casino in Durban, and all of us sitting gobsmacked by the notice from the Film and Publication Board that appeared on the screen, in effect banning the film.

Once again, I was thrown into the surreal roller coaster of a fight with state agencies intent on trampling on our hard-won rights and freedoms.

Once again, I was watching the state walking roughly over the livelihoods of myself and my colleagues. Most importantly, though, as I witnessed the first film being banned since the end of apartheid, I could see the encroaching sacrifice of individual rights at the altar of the advancement of the group and the insidious use of the promotion of social cohesion as a means to suppress dissenting voices.

I suppose I have always been worried about the threats that exist to a constitutional democracy in Africa that is based on individual rights.

While working for the National Constitutional Assembly in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, I was able to witness, first hand, how the concepts associated with individual rights and freedoms in the proposed new Constitution were completely foreign to the general population.

Most Zimbabweans had grown up with a white colonial administration that looked after its own group and suppressed individual rights because of the siege mentality that existed within the white community.

At the same time, the liberation movements, being militant in nature, also pushed the advancement of the group over the rights of the individual. Finally, traditional political practice was not based on individual rights and rather favoured group leadership by the elders.

Given this history – mirrored in South African history by the “group-think” of the old white nationalists, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the liberation movement operations and the traditional practice on the ground – it is no surprise the practice of a constitutional democracy based on individual rights has not completely taken hold as yet and is extremely vulnerable to attack.

One of the ways in which we are being attacked is through the promotion of ”social cohesion”, which is just an ideology under which the elites can keep control of the compliant masses through controlling their very thoughts.

Artists, like authors and film makers, have always existed to question and disrupt the status quo, to effect change and ensure that our leaders do not rest on their laurels.

As such artists will often disrupt the social cohesion used to create conformity, to suppress dissent and to allow elites to live, unfettered off the suffering of the masses.The persecution of artists is the first step towards the persecution of other segments in society.

It is always the intelligentsia and the middle classes who pose a threat to established elites and, often, as in Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot and in Zimbabwe, they are the first to be attacked so that the elites are left to deal with only the weak and the marginalised and no one in between.

Although we are not there yet, what we’re seeing in South Africa and on the rest of the continent is a fascination with the seductive picture of economic advancement in China that has been bought with the sacrifice of individual rights and freedoms.

Looking forward, it seems our Constitution is in for a rough ride and, as artists and film makers, we have to maintain a vigilant defence of our freedoms.

I hope South Africans will continue to unite with artists in questioning the status quo and refusing to accept any attempt by the elite to silence us – because today it’s us and tomorrow it may be you.

»Auret is producer of the film, Of Good Report, which was scheduled to be screened at this year’s Durban International Film Festival

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