Let us be free to offend

2014-06-01 15:00

ANC voters are not clowns. They make perfectly rational choices, as one must assume do most adults in vibrant democracies like ours.

The trope of ANC voters as fodder who do not know better is ignorant of our past and our present.

The party was the main vehicle of freedom for the broad mass of South Africans and voting statistics show that the majority of South Africans trust the governing party with their destiny.

This is not surprising. The ANC has brought a better life in ways both tangible and intangible. ANC voters don’t excuse or condone corruption – the same research reveals this as a major bone of contention. It helps explain why President Jacob Zuma polls lower than the party among supporters.

So, Dr Jack & Curtis published a cartoon that was wrong and offensive.

In a comment on the new Cabinet, its bottom corner depicted voters as clowns. Brett Murray’s painting The Spear was probably offensive too. It was a rendition of the naked emperor, featuring a semi-naked President Zuma.

Instead, it resonated painfully with a time in history when black men were stripped by authorities or black women were searched intimately in the process of subjugating and oppressing them.

Our national and personal dignity is a work in progress. It is being crocheted slowly and painstakingly. Dignity is now a constitutional pillar because of this – it was the fabric of society eradicated most violently by apartheid.

But what becomes troubling is when national dignity is crafted at the expense of free expression. Not only do we then fail to deal properly with dignity and history, but we also set it up as an adversary to free expression.

A wonderful book called Free Expression is No Offence by Lisa Appignanesi lays out how free expression is – and always has been – offensive.

Websites hosting the clown cartoon and photographs of The Spear painting have had to bring them down after marches and vitriolic campaigns. The Spear was vandalised and then shipped to Germany, no doubt now well hung as a symbol of the new South Africa’s intolerance.

The Spear, the Prophet Muhammad cartoons and this week’s clown cartoon have been the jagged edges of our rough and tumble with free expression. Censorship is now becoming our default position because we are either tolerant of censorship or demand and practise it.

A Cabinet minister walked out of photographer Zanele Muholi’s exhibition of lesbian activism because it harmed her “sense of self”. A huge art fair pulled down a work by Ayanda Mabulu that featured a laughing President Zuma, leading a dog that attacked a miner as he was being slain by a matador. It was a radical comment on Marikana and it was censored by the fair’s curator.

There’s a chapter to write on censorship during this year’s elections. We appear to have glossed over the public broadcaster’s Goebbels-like instructions to cut tight on opposition rallies and not pan over crowd shots. Decisions were made to ban election advertisements on spurious grounds that they would incite violence. Both an Economic Freedom Fighters advertisement and a DA advert were censored in this way by the broadcaster. Later, some radio stations also refused to play a DJ who compared himself to Jesus.

These acts of self-censorship are a worrying trend in a nation crafted on debate and codetermination as well as complete religious freedom.

Was there not a better way of facing these vital moments of introspection and excavation?

Is there no way to allow the cartoons and keep up the art as a form of reverence to our new South Africa’s commitment to free expression? Can we not then instead find our mores in constructive debate? When resolved, the art and culture can remain as symbols, untainted, of how we got through the debates to reach a common point.

I personally came to a point of learning about dignity, free expression (and its limitations) as well as what the Constitution means while debating The Spear and various cartoons.

I just wish the journey had not been so violent, that copies of City Press had not needed to be burnt, that a boycott need not have been called on this paper. I wish that, in previous instances, my family had not been dragged into matters to deal with its wayward member.

I came away with impaired dignity, as I suspect do all of us when we find our true values in such violent and destructive ways. I wish we could be more Mandela-esque in how we do this.

I wish I had been braver and understood then that my commitment to the new South Africa, to anti-racism and anti-sexism can quite comfortably coexist with my commitment to free expression.

The dominant position is this: the cartoon or artwork is racist, therefore it must come down. The falsity is that if you don’t agree or if you proffer a different solution, then you too are a racist. Sadly, that practice and belief is now enshrined, as this week has again shown. This week, Primedia was marched upon and, I would argue, intimidated, when perhaps dialogue was a better option.

Twice, the Muslim community has also successfully lobbied to pull down two cartoons which it believed lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, although we are a country of broad and beautiful religious freedom.

All four instances have trailed threat and near violence in their wake when dialogue and tolerance might have better served the creation of new South African mores – and they are new. Even at 20 years old, we are still a nation in the making. Where will we place free expression, the rights of journalists and artists, in the new nation?

Or will our intolerant gene take us in the direction of Afghanistan, where the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed with dynamite by mad Taliban fighters, or Timbuktu, where scholars are piecing together manuscripts burnt by rebels, or Ethiopia, where bloggers and journalists are jailed because free expression is perceived as the enemy of nation-building, growth and development?

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