You can’t legislate respect, Blade

2012-11-17 12:36

If it wasn’t so unnerving, one could have laughed off Blade Nzimande’s endorsement this week of an insult law that would protect President Jacob Zuma from his fiercest critics.

It is easy to chuckle at the SA Communist Party general secretary’s outrageous calls to legislate respect for a sitting president. Is this the final, desperate attempt of a power-drunk man to impress his boss now that his name is slipping off the final slates for Mangaung?

It is a known fact Nzimande is one of Zuma’s closest and most trusted allies. And as the president was trying to explain the multimillion-rand spending at Nkandla this week, Nzimande’s calls for a ban on insults and disrespectful treatment – whatever that means – must have been music to Zuma’s ears.

Since his involvement in the arms deal emerged a decade ago, Zuma’s behaviour has been a favourite subject for satirists, artists and social commentators.

Ours is a robust, open and fair democracy: any citizen who feels aggrieved has a number of channels to complain to, including the courts. Zuma has frequently exercised this right, most recently in the cases he brought against City Press and the artist Brett Murray for The Spear, and his defamation case against cartoonist Zapiro.

In the end, Zuma withdrew both these cases. Other newspapers have settled or apologised when they overstepped the mark.

That is what democracies are about: we play hard and take the punch when we have to say sorry. Nzimande is asking for something else, threatening that Zuma’s supporters would “sooner or later” reach boiling point.

“It’s like we don’t have a culture. I’m Jewish, you know, I’m Afrikaans, but if you’re black African, you are not supposed to have a culture, and that’s a problem.

In fact, the danger of this thing, with the path it is pointing to, we can undo the 1994 deal very easily and undermine the social cohesion,” Nzimande said in an interview, adding that people can criticise him “but disrespect, that is not acceptable”.

Who will decide what is criticism and what constitutes disrespect?

A Censor Board to police everything said, written or drawn?

Nzimande’s nonsense proposal has no place in a democracy where thousands lost their lives in the struggle for freedom of expression.

Respect cannot be legislated, it is earned. If Zuma wants more respect, explaining how he approved the obscene spending at Nkandla is a good place to start.

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