Tony Jackman
Tony Jackman

Muzzling Nando’s and other stupefying attacks on our freedoms

Muzzling the Nando’s chicken would be funny if it weren’t so serious: the ANC Youth League’s threat to mobilise — get that? — mobilise the people of South Africa to rise up against a manufacturer of spicy chicken takeaways is another worrying pointer to a near future that every true democrat must dread. Oh come on, it can’t be the 1st of April again, surely?

“Cheap satire” is how ANCYL sees a Nando’s TV commercial which, it says, mocks its president, Julius Malema. Nothing wrong with that — it’s the ANCYL’s view, it has been expressed, and it has a right to express it. And we should all be prepared to mobilise to defend the ANCYL’s right to call the Nando’s ad “cheap satire”. What is inapt in a democracy is the notion of rising up to quell that freedom.

What is about to happen to freedom of speech in South Africa? When the voices of freedom are stilled, the powerful carry on unchecked. It is the road to an authoritarian future. We need, just as we did in the darkest days of apartheid, our cartoonists, satirists and more serious political commentators to point out the potholes in the road lest our freedoms fall into them and disappear.

I wrote the following blog post yesterday and it was about to go live when I read about the ANCYL’s response to the Nando’s ad. This all follows the debacle over cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro’s lampooning of Jacob Zuma, and we have to worry: what does it all mean for the future of one of our basic freedoms, the freedom of speech? The freedom to write unpalatable things? My freedom to write what I write here, Pieter-Dirk Uys’s freedom to say what he and Evita Bezuidenhout say on stage, a TV company’s right to make fun of a politician or public figure in a TV ad, a cartoonist’s right to pillory: Here’s the blog post I had just written when this latest idiocy cropped up:

There are times when it’s OK to say ‘kaffir’

The word “kaffir” is not only offensive to black people. It offends me too. When I was a little boy, that is to say before my brain kicked in, we had in the horrible small town in which I was brought up a practice of all the white households having “house boys”, which is another term I find offensive, although I did not then.

The man who cleaned our house, did our washing and ironing, polished our floors, was a tall handsome man called Simeon. He was an Owambo, from the very far north of Namibia, and I used to behave really badly in his presence. Although I was very fond of him, the stupid, unthinking child that I was took at one point to screaming at him, calling him “kaffir” over and over again. I have no idea why. It made no sense. Nobody taught me to say that or even think it. I must have heard it somewhere — no, not from my parents, for I have no memory of them ever using the term. I cannot and do not blame my parents for it.

And Simeon would just carry on with his house work, firm of jaw and quiet of lip, with what I now recognise as dignity, but then mistook for sullen silence.

And yes, I find myself writing about my smaller self in the third person here, because I no longer associate myself with anything to do with that little boy. He has become another person, or rather, I have. Which does not mean that I can ever forgive myself.
Simeon came to us on six-month contracts, which was the way the migratory domestic labour force in that drab, soulless small diamond mining town worked. These men would work in Oranjemund for six months and then go north to spend their earnings on their wives and children, and have some months in the bosom of their families, fishing in the streams of that spectacularly beautiful northern Namibian countryside of oshanas and mighty baobabs.

Whenever the time came for Simeon to go, I would be distraught. My daylight friend was suddenly gone. The apron strings were cut, and some other Owambo man would come in his stead, and I would have to try to learn to like them as much as I loved Simeon. But I hardly remember any of the others, except for the drunken one, who almost set fire to the house while doing the ironing. I can still see my dad’s face, red with anger, and the man being sent packing, and me feeling quite sorry for him, although my dad was almost as mad at me, because that was also the day when I had found his secret stash of Cadburys milk chocolate bars in the fridge, and got stuck into them. In fact, I suspect the level of my dad’s anger at the errant domestic arsonist was influenced by my own crime.
The months went by and when the time came for Simeon to come back to us, time just carried on moving on until it became clear that he wasn’t coming back this time. I became reclusive, silent, as in my little-boy way I started to understand that my awful behaviour had brought this devastating consequence. I have understood ever since that actions have consequences, so I guess my biggest lesson was circumspection. And I learnt something about character, from Simeon.

But life teaches us all lessons, and life’s lessons know no colour, and there is another lesson that I think many of us could learn. And that is to learn the difference between common sense and idiocy. The difference between a wise, considered conclusion and a knee-jerk, inane and mindlessly politically-correct reaction.

We’re still talking about the same word that started this column, but now we’re in the present, living in a time when we all know that it is just not OK to say the word kaffir. And that if we do, we cannot and should not be allowed to get away with it.
But hold on a moment — I’ve just written the word, and in a non-offensive way, because I am saying, unequivocally: it is wrong and offensive to say it. Which is what kwaito star Arthur Mafokate did in the mid-90s with his major hit, Kaffir. For which a radio station has just been rapped over the knuckles — because they played the song.

But the song is about the fact that to say the word is wrong. The lyrics of the song slam the use of the word. The lesson, therefore, of the song, is that we should not say “kaffir” because it is so deeply insulting and hurtful. The song is therefore instructive, and helpful, and the (mainly young people) who have heard or will hear the song will hear and learn that it is wrong.
Just as my use of the word in this blog post carries the clear message that it is wrong, and gives personal anecdotal evidence of how hurtful it can be. And that its use will have consequences. If I had not used the word here, the message would be less clear.
So what’s the message then? That we must not teach our listeners, our fans, our readers that it is bad to use such words? That creative people must not use their creative tools to teach, to impart messages? That playwrights must not speak out, that songwriters should not rail against injustice, that satirists and cartoonists should not pillory to draw attention to the foolish behaviour of politicians? Where does it all start or end?

It’s mindlessly PC, frankly stupid, and, let’s be quite clear: it is undemocratic, because it denies free speech. To anybody who embraces this democratic right, it should be very worrying.