Onkgopotse JJ Tabane
Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

Zapiro shouldn’t apologise

So the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa is demanding that Zapiro apologise for drawing what so many are talking about in private: the utter abuse of state institutions, office and the Constitution.

This assault on and degrading of constitutional order was highlighted by the call for a political solution to President Jacob Zuma’s woes and has been crowned recently by the defiant appointment of an ANC apparatchik to the position of chief prosecutor of our country — crass protectionism for political heavyweights at the very top. Now we are on the verge of an inexplicable pardon of fraudster Schabir Shaik after his even more questionable medical parole. Another blatant abuse of public confidence is about to happen.

In his cut-throat style Zapiro compared this with the “raping of lady justice”. He has every right to do so. The events described above violate the constitutional order that so many have lost life and limb to realise.

Whether a head of state should be portrayed in these crass terms is a matter for the conscience of the cartoonists and commentators but I wouldn’t forbid them. The day we tell writers, opinion makers, artists and intellectuals in general to be “tempered”, “toned down” and “mollycoddled”, especially towards paid public servants, is the day we start an irreversible assault on freedom of expression. In any event there are so few pubic intellectuals who are willing to be targets of the new powers-that-be that there is very little public discourse going on — a sign of our times.

In practice, if you disagree with the mainstream, you are labelled disruptive, disrespectful, self-promoting and rebellious. That is why it is easier said than done. So do the municipal workers have a leg to stand on about respecting the person and office of the president other than appealing to Zapiro’s “inner African being”? I am afraid not. To do this they will have to be a lot more consistent. I have yet to hear them condemn Tokyo Sexwale, Buti Manamela and Angie Motshekga for calling political opponents witches, baboons and dogs in the name of protecting those people’s public office and dignity. So where do we draw the thin line between rights and responsibilities?

Sadly, I don’t think any political party has cracked the relevant formula. None are innocent in attempting to silence dissenting voices in their ranks. Recently we saw the ANC trying to silence party veterans Frene Ginwala and Kader Asmal. In Cope — where a ticket of defending the Constitution was punted as the number-one campaign issue — similar tendencies are cropping up, as reported by this newspaper last week.

Some leaders who shout against these things in broader society don’t like it when they are criticised publicly. Cope and the ANC are not alone in this tendency to be sensitive when it comes to criticism. People in the IFP are terrified of the questioning of Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s lifelong leadership of the party. People in the UDM are whispering about the eternal general … and who would have thought the SACP would do the “Nujoma” and change their constitution instead of changing their general secretary — and there was not a murmur of protest at the obvious wrong — to suit individuals’ insatiable hunger for power.

So it seems to me that this freedom of expression thing is indeed easier said than done because it is clear that politicians of every hue with their expedience will never convincingly and consistently defend these rights.

Citizens like Zapiro must be given the space to sharply point out the dark side of society and be protected by our courts from the powerful in society who have become so self-important that they can’t even have fun poked at them nor can they stand even the mildest of criticisms.

To those who wield the pen, however, it’s important we exercise that freedom while being cognisant of the society we’re trying to build where we can criticise without insulting.

To politicians, come on, receive criticism without always trying to kill its messenger in the name of an inflated sense of dignity. Let a million flowers bloom!