Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

The right to insult

I am just a government funk and perhaps have no business to be talk about the much-vaunted right to artistic freedom of expression. Working for the state, it is presumed that I support the Secrecy Bill and desire to suppress freedom of expression.

But I, too, am a citizen of this nation-in-the-making with rights. Also, I consider myself an artistic writer with a special interest or strong views on this controversial matter.

Let me begin by making one point very loud and clear: the capitalist and patriarchal superstructure that promotes and protects white supremacy and wealth monopolisation willingly and unavoidably promotes disrespect for black people.

In fact, freedom of expression, whatever that is, must be problematised. We must debate it with the sole intention to use it as an instrument for moving us forward to the kind of society we want to see in our lifetime: democratic, just and equal!

In our country, freedom of expression belongs to those who own the media and those who work for them, especially to protect their material interests and to preserve the economic status quo. We are told we live in the most unequal society on earth. The practitioners of freedom of expression do NOT use their power, platform and influence to mobilize society to do something about economic inequality.

In fact, they cannot. You can be a Rehad Desai and make a movie about how a so-called black government allegedly murdered black workers at Marikana. But you cannot make a movie about how, in this country, these same blacks, like Cyril Ramaphosa, own less than 2% of the economy or how whites control, dominate and monopolise wealth and the economy. White capital or Hollywood will not allow you.

It’s a lie to speak of freedom of expression when those who have the power to wield it gloss over economic inequality only to draw attention or portray its consequences — unemployment, poverty and inequality — as a failure of a democratic government.

This artistic freedom of expression must be questioned when the national question of who owns the land has been taken off the radar of national discourse and debate only to show up in glossy magazine and television picture profiles of a handful of Africans who live in secluded golf estates.

There is only one black billionaire — Patrice Motsepe — and less than 800 000 people who constitute the black middle class. Those who love freedom of expression are not telling who owns the land and how they got it. They rarely mention that the so-called black middle class is caught in a vicious and perpetual debt trap.

This much-vaunted artistic freedom of expression is not used to challenge ATKV as an exclusive institution that solely promotes Afrikaans language rights. It is not used to challenge and encourage all the people, especially whites, to become opponents that lead the fight against prejudice and discrimination. If we had more whites like Nadine Gordimer, or people who supported her views, we would be living in a different country.

If I had to choose between freedom of expression without right to dignity and inalienable right to dignity without freedom of expression, I would choose the latter. I would rather live in a society of the mute than where the tongue or pen is used to insult me and undermine my dignity as an African.

In June this year the newly appointed minister of arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa, addressed a media briefing at the National Arts Festival. Out of the dark blue, he was portrayed as this monster that threatened freedom of expression.

In fact, peddlers of this view claimed that the minister told artists not to create or arouse discontent among the people and, as a result, posed a serious threat to artistic freedom. Well, this is not true. It was a figment of somebody’s fertile imagination. There is no evidence, whatsoever, of such a directive.

If anything, the minister made it clear that the legislative mandate of the department is to promote, protect and preserve the right to freedom of expression. He called for artists to find a balance between artistic freedom with the right to dignity. This is a significant development in the right direction.
Whether this right should be subject to other rights, I don’t know the answer. But there is a view that suggesting this creates an insurmountable hurdle to defending and promoting the right to freedom of expression.

The point about the issue at hand is that we must ask if the right to freedom of expression means the right to insult, especially African people. Often — not always of course, but far more often than anyone would have us believe — there is a pattern and tendency to insult African people under the guise of exercising the right to freedom of expression.

This is, rightly or wrongly, the legacy of colonialism of a special type where African people have always been, and continue to be treated without any respect and dignity. There is a view in the African community that as much as they have an inherent right to dignity, sections of the media and some artists continue to treat them as sub-human, degrading them at every opportunity.

So, do we believe that in the New South Africa the right to speak your mind is more important than the right of the African majority to jobs, houses, clinics, health, security and comfort and a decent life with dignity? We are not living in a novel by a libertarian like Ayn Rand here. No, we are living in a real and present danger of a country that can go up in flames because of economic inequality, dispossession and land loss, prejudice and discrimination.

I am often struck by how artists and the media are very quick to apologise when they deal with the Muslims or the Jews on what they consider to be sensitive matters. Talk about drawing Prophet Muhammad, the Holocaust or the issue of Israel.

We need to realise that Africans are aware of these developments and see the unequal treatment when it comes to issues considered sacred by religion or culture.

It is not for me to say if there must be preconditions to freedom of expression. But considering where we come from, we do not see the same things in the same way. The Constitution is our rallying point and demands we be guided by its ideals, principles and guidelines.

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