Treading the tight line of tolerance

2015-01-11 17:00

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The fatal attack of staff at French satirical magazine throws into stark contrast the social pact we have in SA. Ferial Haffajee ponders what it means for free speech.

Newsroom conferences are the heartbeat of a media operation. It’s here where you set the tone; determine the leads; decide on your collective opinion; and often disagree.

It is an open space, but also a sacred one, where a team of individuals come together to create a way of understanding your world or revealing its course, or telling you things powerful people would rather you did not know.

It was simply horrifying to imagine crazed men entering this space and spraying murderous bullets across a news conference room – proving the gun mightier than the pen. What happened to satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris this week would not happen here.

The corollary is that a Charlie Hebdo would not be published in South Africa. As a journalist, this is not an easy truth to hold; but as a South African, one must concede its wisdom. I forget sometimes where we come from: a history of white Christian nationalist chauvinism overlaid by deep racial oppression.

When freedom came, peace had to be constructed alongside it, or we might have ended up as the two Sudans, the Central African Republic or the closed society of a post-communist Russia.

Our miracle narrative can fray at the edges, but along with (relative) racial harmony, South Africa’s democratic founding fathers bequeathed us something equally valuable: interreligious harmony.

Elsewhere, religious strife rips apart the world as believers turn their gods to war. Not here. At every occasion of state (and most major political party gatherings, too), there is a marvellous parade of prayer as various Christian leaders, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Hindi pandit and a praise singer bless the gathering.

This is rapidly becoming an unusual legacy of religious tolerance in our fractured world. Intermarriage has enhanced religious diversity, and many people live across faiths.

Atheism and agnosticism are minority belief systems, and drawings made by cartoonists like those who died so viciously in Paris are not common currency here.

When Zapiro sharpened his pencil to join the incendiary campaign called Draw Muhammad Day – a Western cartooning campaign in defiance of the precept that the Prophet must not be depicted – the Mail & Guardian apologised after a wail of protest.

I did too, at the same title, when we published one of the cartoons made by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. I chose it to illustrate a story of how protests were spreading from Denmark across Europe and into the rest of the world.

Damnation fell across me, filled my inbox, and I felt the weight of heavy and wide disapproval. It didn’t just come from Muslims. The pressure was political, from other religious leaders, and from people I admire and love.

There were threats, and deeply distasteful anger and action directed at me, but the far greater pressure was societal.

In thinking through that awful time, I realised I had crossed a new South African line. My radical free expression found itself at odds with social mores. Somewhere between 1994 and 2010, when the incident occurred, this had been established.

We do not offend each other on religious grounds. South Africa has decided, in weighting its rights, that religious rights trump the right to free expression. Unlike the French, many South Africans are deeply religious – prayer and worship are the most common practices across class and race.

Two years later, another piece of satirical art landed City Press and I in hot water.

A drawing called The Spear by Brett Murray was published as part of an art review. It featured a partially naked President Jacob Zuma in a Leninesque pose. The artist’s imagination was clear: our president is our naked emperor.

Never has an art review gone as viral as The Spear did. Damnation rained upon us as a political boycott was called and copies of City Press were burnt in a Durban march led by one of our First Ladies. By 2012, Twitter was in full tweet, and the campaign against us turned viral and vicious.

That was painful, but not unbearable. What pushed my hand on that delete button as we brought down the digital image was something much deeper.

Our society spoke to us in pained column inches and emotional talk shows as the indignities of being black were ripped open again by the piece of art. Art is powerful that way.

It turned out that 20 years of freedom is a dot in time. It turned out that we are not healed. It turned out that our peers and elders thought we had crossed a line by publishing it.

Again, I learnt painfully that South Africa has, by and large, weighted the right to dignity (even of the powerful) more highly than it has free expression.

When the writer Eric Miyeni called me a black snake who deserved a necklace for our exposés of then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s tender ways, he was also called to order by a swathe of society. He was then fired.

Although it never went to court, this instance and other decisions have shown that the courts and regulators have set the bar conservatively on what qualifies as hate speech.

With our past, South Africa has established an almost zero-tolerance approach to offence and provocation.

The Paris shootings were numbing, but it was not long before Charlie Hebdo’s provocative style was held up to the toughest South African scrutiny in columns and on social media this week. It’s how we roll.

Our society would not countenance a Charlie Hebdo here – if there was one, it would not survive commercially, and would be subject to court and other civic action.

But in our other national spirit, that of debate, I must ask: have we overcorrected for our past and do we risk sacrificing free expression? Is it a good or a bad thing to acknowledge that our media and social landscape would not find space for a Charlie Hebdo in spite of a Constitution that enshrines free expression?

Tolerant and open societies must allow for offence and provocation, but set limits for when this tilts into hate speech – that limit must be set by the courts. Too often these days, it is being set by politicians, or the simply intolerant.

And the line is being drawn tightly and harshly, not loosely or progressively, as I would argue our Constitution imagined.

The Spear unleashed unhealed anguish for sure. But the campaign against it also served to bolster a flaccid political administration that needed an enemy because it works best when cast in a victim mode.

Last year, the ANC’s cadres marched against a depiction of ANC voters as clowns.

And, while our religious freedoms and harmony are valuable common goods, there is a vein of deep intolerance and a threatening spirit in sections of the ANC that surely deserve introspection by its leaders.

At the end of last year, in the middle of the season of goodwill, President Jacob Zuma’s praise singer singled out Zapiro, me, City Press and Julius Malema as enemies of the state.

Malema is a political opponent, not an enemy; City Press is a media title; and Zapiro and I are journalists, not enemies. We should be neither vilified nor valorised if we are to enjoy our African freedom.

This week’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the slaying of colleagues there have pushed me further away from our national consensus and the ways we have chosen to limit free expression.

I understand and appreciate that consensus, but I no longer support it. Too often in South Africa, when we speak about free speech, we talk about its responsibilities and its limits – it is even the language of most writers, journalists and editors if you listen carefully.

But now I want to talk about the right to free speech and how to expand it, not limit it, and how to burnish it and keep it bright.

Victims from Charlie Hebdo

Jean Cabut (76)

Co-founder and cartoonist

Stephane Charbonnier (47)

Editor in chief

Bernard Maris (68)

Deputy chief editor

Georges Wolinski (80)


Bernard Verlhac (58)


Philippe Honore (73)


Elsa Cayat (54)

Social columnist

Mustapha Ourrad


Michel Renaud

Founder of a travel writing festival who was invited to attend the magazine’s weekly editorial conference

Frederic Boisseau (42)

Maintenance worker

Franck Brinsolaro (49)

Police officer assigned to protect Charbonnier

Ahmed Merabet (42)

Police officer killed as the attackers fled the scene

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