Georgina Guedes

Gareth's back!

2016-01-29 16:50

So Gareth Cliff is back as an Idols judge. I don’t watch Idols and I’m not a fan of Cliff’s, so the unfolding of this story has been a bit like watching one of those movies where you don’t like any of the characters very much, so the outcome won’t bother you either way.

However, there were some abstract characters at play here, and it’s fair to say that I care very, very much about them. I’m talking about freedom of speech and racism – which really were the opposing parties in this case, and about which very many South Africans care very deeply.

How we got here

Gareth Cliff was at the eye of a storm of negative sentiment with which South Africans thundered into the new year. The annual photos of black people celebrating New Year on South Africa’s fine beaches always ruffle some racist feathers, but most of the time, it’s possible to just delete a few friends from your Facebook timeline and move on (if you’re white and such things aren’t rubbing salt into the wound of generations of oppression).

This year, however, Penny Sparrow really went to town with her insults – announcing that she would henceforth be referring to the “blacks of South Africa as monkeys”. And the best (by which I mean worst) part was that when she was taken to task for her comments, she honestly saw nothing wrong with them.

So the DA and the ANC Youth League (unlikely bedfellows) laid charges against her.

And everybody weighed in on the situation. Including Gareth Cliff, who is a radio DJ whose entire brand is built around speaking his mind. And he said that people don’t understand freedom of speech.

When is speech not free?

Here’s the bit in the Constitution about the limitations upon freedom of expression: “The right in subsection (1) does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

Did Penny Sparrow advocate hatred based on race? I am pretty sure she did, no matter what she says. But did that advocacy also constitute incitement to cause harm? It’s hard to say – and really depends on whether the constitution meant to count emotional harm in that definition. Because that kind of harm certainly happened – in Sparrow’s utterances and in Cliff’s defence of them.

But then the exclusion for freedom of expression would have to be extended to every person who ever said a hurtful thing to someone else – and we’d be without freedom of expression pretty quickly.

The outcome of the case

After some fine legal minds considered this (including EFF commissar Dali Mpofu who argued for Cliff), the High Court has reinstated Cliff’s job with Idols, because Cliff was just being Cliff, and probably wasn’t damaging MNet’s brand by being himself, since being himself was the reason that they hired him in the first place. So that’s what the law of the land has had to say on the matter.

But just because it isn’t illegal doesn’t make it right. White South Africa has a lot to apologise for, for the past and for the privileges we continue to enjoy every day. Yes we do. And we should express our extreme gratitude that we live in a nation where the constitution protects our rights to be abhorrently vocal about matters of race.

Just because we are allowed to say what we like (within reason), doesn’t mean we should. We should consider the words that come out of our mouths, and ask ourselves whether they will be hurtful to others and whether they are informed by prejudice. And if the answer to those questions is yes, we need to not say those words. We all need to work harder at doing better – no matter how ghastly the constitution allows us to be.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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