Michael Francis
Michael Francis

SpeakZA: Can Jacob Zuma be called an apie?

I am echoing the old debate where Eugene Terre’blanche referred to a statue of Chief Tshwane as an “apie”. For the record, I do not think he is ape-like at all (Jacob, not Eugene; I find Eugene slightly simian). I actually do not even wish to talk explicitly about Jacob Zuma, but about freedom of expression and freedom to dissent. Despite his recent claim that there is a need to “look at how far the exercise of media freedom should go”.

There have been some disturbing events in South Africa that seem to show an increasing level of intolerance form the ruling elite — the detention of joggers for (aptly) saluting the president, blue-light bullying in general and I also see it in increasing calls from Thought Leader bloggers and commentators to ban flags, censor people for their utterances, lock up joggers and never insult the leaders.

I feel that people should be allowed to say what they like in their own personal capacity as long as they are not incitements to violence. So I am thrust into a strange position of defending the ilk of Julius Malema and Eugene Terre’blanche, not because I agree with him, but because he like everyone must be free to make his stupid remarks. I will return to Malema below where I see a need for him to be censored.

Freedom of expression is not without limits. A school teacher cannot be allowed to call students by racial slurs and people in authority positions must be called to task for racist utterances and for hate speech. If a judge admits to hating people of a particular hue then they should be fired as they cannot be impartial.

I am saddened and disturbed by the increasing calls to silence dissent. I am most disturbed that this is from ordinary people and not just the leaders. What kind of political culture is growing in South Africa that makes educated youth feel that they cannot question leadership and authority? The entire anti-apartheid movement was a questioning of authority as people refused to accept bigotry, hatred and inequality.

And it is in that spirit of silencing bigotry and hatred that Malema should be charged with inciting violence. A call to kill the Boer must be treated as a call to violence as the high rate of farm murders attests to. To simply recognise that it was a struggle song is to forget that parts of the struggle were horrifically violent and that struggle is over. A new future for South Africa must be charted that does not use apartheid race categories as signifying different rights and as a means to group and label. Malema can stand up and say I hate whites (he clearly does), but the call to violence must be curtailed.

So if someone wishes to stand up and say Zuma is an ape I will fight for him to be allowed to say it. If that same person wishes to stand up and say we should attack Zuma then he should be silenced.

Freedom is never easy and feelings may even get hurt and words may echo of the apartheid past, but they should never be silenced for fear of insult. The recent attempts to muzzle the media are part of a much bigger debate about the role of the media in society. It is to be a watchdog and critique of society not a praise-singer to the ANC.

But of course the issue is not about free speech, although related, but whether or not the media can report and investigate the political elite. While this does not bode well for media freedom in South Africa, the backlash to this does. The media will not be silenced easily. We will know we have a real problem when they no longer care what the media reports.