When Zapiro caused an uproar last year with his now notorious cartoon depicting Jacob Zuma about to take the lead in gang-raping a woman representing Justice, it said two things about the state of South African democracy. On the positive side, where else but in a true democracy would a newspaper be allowed to get away with so savage an attack on arguably the country’s foremost political leader? Unfortunately, it was also representative of another, less healthy, phenomenon, namely the progressive brutalisation of political discourse in this country.
My view at the time was, and still is, that Zapiro’s cartoon (some will also remember how during his rape trial a few years ago, he depicted Zuma as a giant phallus) crossed the line to an unacceptable degree and that one did not have to be a fan of Jacob Zuma to feel insulted by it. Whatever clouds hang over Zuma’s personal and professional conduct, he deserves better than to be lampooned in so vicious and frankly dehumanising a manner.
Political debate in a democratic environment tends to be overly robust at times. Even allowing for this, however, there need to be limits to what is said (ideally, such limitations should be self-imposed based on the principles of common decency rather than on formal legal strictures). Many South Africans now have grave reservations about the direction political discourse is taking in this country, and fear for the future of their society if the rhetoric of threats, personal smears and racial resentment were to triumph over that of agreeing to differ in a spirit of respect and tolerance. (A certain youth occupying a position of no small importance within the ANC has been an especially egregious offender in this regard, but he has by no means been the only one).
Smearing individuals is bad enough, but denigrating entire sections of the population takes things to an altogether more menacing level. This is particularly true when the race card is played. Last month, the ANC in Mpumalanga was caught distributing a fake DA pamphlet portraying the DA as a racist party. The pamphlet claimed that the DA wanted to bring back the days of “permits” and concluded with the words “Warning: Do not show this pamphlet to your maids and garden boys … we need their votes”. This goes beyond mere cheating to obtain more votes; it is, in fact, a dangerous form of racist incitement.
The brutalisation of political discourse in South Africa has also been manifesting in a campaign against the mainstream Jewish community and its leadership that Cosatu is today waging. As described in more detail by myself previously in this forum, at a largely Cosatu-organised pro-Palestinian rally in Lenasia on January 14, one speaker after another went so far as to call for Jewish supporters of Israel to be expelled from the country (as one of them put it, “The government should ask the people, the Jews here, if they are supporting Israel and ask them to leave”). It was at this rally, of course, that Deputy Foreign Minister Fatimah Hajaig informed the cheering crowd that the United States and most other Western countries were in the grip of Jewish money power.
Cosatu’s international relations secretary, Bongani Masuku, has been especially egregious in the threatening and insulting statements he has made about Jews who do not adhere to his organisation’s radical anti-Israel line. Speaking at a Cosatu-led demonstration against the Jewish communal leadership outside the Sydenham Highlands North Synagogue on February 6, for example, he conveyed “a message to the Jews in South Africa” that any business owned by Israel supporters would be targeted by the country’s workers.
On blogs and in subsequent email correspondence, Masuku has expressed the view that Jewish supporters of Israel must not merely be encouraged but forced to leave South Africa “before they infect the country with any more racism”. In the course of this correspondence, he has variously referred to Jews as “arrogant”, the “world’s cry-babies” and as “inhumane” (aside from those who have “risen above the fascist parochial paranoia of Israel”).
Coming from anyone, such views are highly distasteful; coming from the spokesperson of an organisation representing some two million workers and which is an integral part of the “tripartite alliance” governing the country, they are downright scary. Regardless of what one’s views on the Middle East conflict might be, when an organisation of this stature threats with expulsion anyone who refuses to toe a particular political line, this represents a serious threat to all South Africans. It represents further disturbing evidence of how a spirit of intolerance and intimidation is being allowed to permeate this country’s democratic culture.