Janice Winter
Janice Winter

Counter-evolutionaries

I like Zapiro. I like that his cartoons are irreverent, provocative, incisive, humorous and hyperbolic; that no matter how ostensibly offensive, they are almost always perfectly on point. And I like that they piss powerful people off.

But not this week. A first for me, I find Friday’s M&G cartoon disappointing, its message inaccurate and its ethics compromised.

The cartoon (see below) depicts South African heads of state within the archetypal evolutionary trope. At the pinnacle of democratic “civilisation” is, of course, Mandela; his predecessors and successors diminishing into more primitive forms the further from him they appear on the timeline in a kind of cartoon bell curve.acd401bfbb31e82b45155aa17defe07c.jpgIt is, as is characteristic of all Zapiro’s work, brilliant artistically and timely in pointing to current concerns about democratic retrogression. My objection is the degree of democratic stature accorded to the leaders: with FW de Klerk depicted as more evolved democratically than Mbeki, who is of the equivalent stature to PW Botha, while Zuma is less civilised than Vorster, instead drawn in the same primitive form as Verwoerd. I find these comparisons outrageous.

Zuma could indeed be criticised for the regressive legislation his administration is seeking to adopt that would severely compromise our constitutional freedoms, as well as increased militarism under his leadership, unresolved corruption scandals, and a seemingly haphazard leadership of the ANC. But to parallel him with Verwoerd, the “architect of apartheid”, is — quite frankly — disgusting. In his aim to remove all blacks from the country and resettle them in Bantustans, Verwoerd consigned more than 80% of our nation to overcrowded and inhumane homelands on just 13% of the country’s (mostly infertile) land, with many dying of malnutrition and families split apart by influx control in one of the largest experiments of state-led social engineering the world has seen.

Zuma is also depicted as just less evolved than Vorster. Though Vorster granted a few minor concessions to blacks, let’s be serious — the man was involved in the Ossewabrandwag (a right-wing Afrikaner nationalist group sympathetic to Hitler’s Nazi party) in his early career. His leadership saw conscription introduced, the banning of multiracial political parties, an average of 700 books banned per year, and thousands of people detained and tortured in 90-day and then 180-day detention, some of whom died as a result, including Steve Biko.

Depicted next in our evolutionary democratic development is PW Botha, the apartheid securocrat who famously warned of a “total onslaught” that required a “total strategy”. He introduced some significant reforms, but these ultimately proved little more than cosmetic surgery to make apartheid appear more attractive and to increase its longevity. Despite the widely anticipated “Crossing the Rubicon” speech in 1985, he defied expectations and refused to give in to mounting pressure.

Botha began a secret nuclear weapons programme in collaboration with Israel. Under his leadership key anti-apartheid activists were murdered by police hit squads, experiments in chemical and biological warfare were conducted, thousands were detained and tortured, and neighbouring countries were destabilised by counter-insurgency units. And yet this is the man with whom Zapiro has chosen to equate Mbeki in form and stature. Though Mbeki may have shared Botha’s desire for a highly centralised executive presidency and consolidated personal power at the expense of democratic procedure in key spheres (at times compromising the independence of the judiciary and the public broadcaster, for example), the comparison surely ends there. To suggest that Mbeki is of the same stature democratically as a man who was found guilty of gross violations of human rights by the TRC and who remained defiant in his defence of apartheid seems indefensible.

So I’m left wondering why Zapiro chose to do so. Zapiro convincingly argues the idea of the cartoon as “the terrain of hyperbole”. In an interview with the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy he said, “In order to say something about what is happening, you exaggerate something, you take it to the nth degree, in order to reflect how things could go — it’s the hypothetical and the hyperbole — that’s what we do.”

While I agree with this role of the satirist as caricaturing people and events, I do not find it convincing as a valid defence in this particular instance. The cartoon depicts things that have already taken place (Mbeki’s administration, for example) and the exaggeration (equating it to that of PW Botha) therefore cannot be defended as reflecting “how it could go”. But far more fundamentally, apartheid has been accorded the status of a crime against humanity in international jurisprudence — a term (like that of genocide) with a precise definition. Comparing our (compromised) democratic leaders with those responsible for gross violations of human rights and for a crime against humanity should not be done flippantly, but only with the utmost caution; inappropriately equating eras (as I believe Zapiro has) diminishes both the atrocities committed under apartheid and the fundamental rights that we now enjoy in our (flawed) democracy.

While a critique of deeply concerning erosions of democracy is crucial and timely, insinuating that we are currently no better off in terms of democratic leadership than we were in the very worst years of apartheid, I believe, undermines this important condemnation of current compromises to our constitutional values.

It is also poorly timed, given ongoing (inaccurate and sensationalist) claims by the ANC that the media is inaccurate and sensationalist — which, on balance, it is not. This cartoon seems something of an own-goal in the current media/ANC confrontation.

But, however inaccurate or offensive I find the cartoon, I would nonetheless fight for Zapiro’s right to outrage me. Rather than win our way by silencing potentially offensive opinions through punitive sanctioning (as the ANC is attempting with the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and the Privacy of Information Act), democracy urges us to win our way by argument instead: by offering an alternative position that proves more accurate, robust and convincing, even in the face of its fiercest critics.

While comparisons (and I would argue accusations) like those in Zapiro’s cartoon may not be legitimate in reason, they must remain legitimate in law. The only limit to freedom of speech (including the freedom to offend) should be hate speech that incites people to imminent violence against a group — a caveat that itself ought to be defined as narrowly as possible.

And so, what of Malema’s outrageous assertion during Zuma’s rape trial that “when a woman didn’t enjoy it, she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast, and ask for taxi money”? This statement was judged as hate speech by the equality court, as a result of the dangerous attitude it exhibits towards women, in general, and rape, in particular. Yet Matt Yglesias, a prominent US political blogger, disagrees with the finding and warns South Africa of eroding the importance of free speech by being too quick to prohibit offensive utterances.

He argues that though Malema’s statement is clearly unacceptable, “the practical consequences of criminalising political speech are very real and not likely to be beneficial in the long run”. He warns that it is “very easy to imagine expansive powers to restrict speech being turned against marginal groups, radicals, or anyone who’s politically inconvenient. Especially in a relatively new democracy like South Africa, it’s important to stick to liberal principles”.

Instinctively, one tends to support the court’s finding, given the extreme levels of rape in our country. Indeed, one response to Yglesias’s blog argued that victims of such discrimination “do not share the luxury of having the nuanced worries about overstepping of legislation that come with privileged white American male status”. Another asserted that “in countries where women, or other disadvantaged groups, face great challenges and the exploiting group is resistant to change, it can take overreaching legislation to substitute for societal attitudes that are way out of place”. But can we justify undemocratic means, however noble the intended end? An instrumental and shifting view of democracy seems a dangerous direction to pursue.

Free speech (unfortunately) protects misogynists and minorities alike. We can’t demand free speech for people whose views we share, while asserting that the speech of the “other side” is dangerous and thus unacceptable. Even offensive speech should be allowed and — unless it propagates war or advocates hatred that incites imminent violence (the only constitutional limitations to free speech) — the government and the courts should not determine what ideas are acceptable.

I strongly disagree with both Zapiro’s counter-evolutionary cartoon and Malema’s counter-revolutionary rhetoric, but I even more strongly defend their right to share these opinions, however bigoted, prejudiced or offensive I may find them. Unless an expression genuinely endangers people by inciting imminent violence, we should fiercely protect our otherwise unhindered right to free speech. Rather than consider the “benefits” of censuring speech through heavy-handed and unconstitutional legislation, we should focus on developing the far more difficult skills of debating, arguing, tolerating and defending diverse views. Accepting offensive views is one of the many inconveniences of democracy. But we cannot do democracy without it.