Lessons of the Spear

May 28, 2012

We need to develop a new consensus on dignity and its place in our national debate, without confusing it with enforced respect for the presidency. This was the nub of the “Nadine Gordimer Lecture”, I delivered at the Richmond book festival this last weekend.

My talk:

Editors used to have some influence over the national agenda. We chose what to cover and not cover and to some extent this shaped our national debate. We could not tell people what to think, sadly, but we could have some influence what they thought about. But now in the age of the internet, social media, citizen journalism and the proliferation of access and outlets, editors have less power and influence. Any sense of authority is drowned in the chatter. We were gatekeepers and then someone moved the gate. That may be for the better, it may be more democratic and participative, but it does leave me wondering who and what shapes what we focus on and what we choose to ignore.

I ask this question because of recent events in the news, in which I have been immersed. We have spent the last weeks discussing a depiction of the president’s appendage and the state of his dignity. I asked myself why? Was it the artists’ intention: is he setting our agenda? That seems unlikely, much as I would like to think that an artist can shape our national debate in this way. Is it because a major newspaper, the City Press, took the image out of the gallery and put it on their page two? They got the ball rolling, but it was the ANC’s call for the picture to be censored, and the threat that they would take the matter to court, which really took it from being a minor news story to a national dispute.

For me personally, the debate went through three stages. Initially, I said rather glibly that the ANC was being silly: they might object to the work, but they should express that and move on. They certainly should not be asking the courts to ban it. At this stage, I quite enjoyed the debate. Jackson Mthembu told us the ANC was shocked and appalled, and it contrasted with the president’s silence on a number of other pressing social issues. Zuma told us he had been portrayed as “a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect” and that seemed fairly accurate and hardly a reason to ban the work. The SACP leapt forward to defend Zuma, not Lenin, whose image was the basis of the work. The SACP Youth Organised a march on the gallery, which I thought was wonderful, as I loved the thought of a political organisation going en masse to a gallery and debating the work. Zuma’s daughter got together to issue a statement, and I thought they probably had to hire a stadium to get together.

I enjoyed this precisely because it was open and hearty public debate about race and representation, about the limits of free speech, about the role of the artist and the size of the president’s shlong. You have to love this country, I thought.

Stage two was a realisation that the work evoked a deeply-felt visceral anger about representation of the black man, and in particular the lack of dignity and respect that had long historical roots. One could not brush that off, particularly when the figure of Saartjie Baartman was evoked, that archetypal victim of racist dehumanisation and humiliation. There is a difference of course: Zuma is a president, with power, authority and wealth and the point about Baartman was that she was a powerless victim of other people’s perverse interest. Nevertheless, this, and numerous similiar humiliations involving nakedness, make up the history and that history is very present. When I went on radio, SAfm had 250 calls and messages lined up, and they said that was unprecedented. A number of those callers made a point of saying they had little time for Zuma, but were angered by the picture. I had to withdraw my remark that the ANC’s action was “silly”, acknowledge deep feelings on the issue, and even that the ANC had done right by confronting and forcing into the open their concerns about race and representation. Let’s have the debate, I argued, but let’s not threaten artists or try and have the work banned or censored.

But events took a turn for the worse. First, a churchman called for the artist to be stoned. Then two men defaced the painting, and one of them is brutalised by a security guard. The complications of our attitudes to race were on show on national television, as one had to raise one’s eyebrows at a black security guard beating up a young black man who was offering no resistance, but allowing his besuited white counterpart to stand around and conduct interviews. This was horrifying stuff and it appeared that the two groups of antagonists on this debate were locked into firm and conflictual positions: one prioritising freedom of speech, another the rights to dignity, and no one apparently interested in seeking the balance between the two as required in the constitution.

So back to my initial question: why has this grown into such a big issue? Why have the ANC and its allies chosen to pursue this issue with such determination and fervour? They proceeded to court, they called for marches, they called for a ban of city press – all of this after the painting has been removed and on the internet, the horse has truly bolted: even if it is removed from the City Press site, it is now so widely available on other sites, that there is no controlling it. So why does the ANC not just pack up and move on?

There are two possible explanations, and I suspect both are part of the answer. The first is that we were watching a Zuma re-election strategy: he is good at playing the victim, he has united the party behind him, or at least made it hard for anyone not support him on this issue, and he has mobilised his core traditional, conservative constituency. For all his shortcomings, he is a brilliant political fighter, particularly good when on the defence. And that is what we are seeing at play here.

The second aspect is that we have touched a real raw nerve in this society around issues of male sexuality, humiliation and dignity – and these are deeply embedded in our history, our collective psychology, and is evident in the high incident of rape and gender-based violence that we see. To ignore this, or play it down, or dismiss it lightly, is an error.

It is worth remembering, that the special circumstances and extraordinary history of the Holocaust in the second world war led to special measures, such as bans on holocaust denialism, and hate speech laws, drawn up as part of a period of healing and repair. There are still people going to prison in Europe for denying the holocaust in countries which have high levels of freedom of expression.

Do we need to give greater weight to dignity at least until there is a feeling that the most immediate pain and memories of apartheid are behind us? This is a difficult question. And if we need to give special consideration to this issue, do we do it in law, or just in social conduct, in defining what is or is not acceptable in our social interaction. When a model recently tweeted racially offensive material, the reaction was such that within hours she was a jobless, futureless, friendless pariah. A powerful and most effective message was sent out: that such language and attitudes are just not acceptable; if you use them, expect to be isolated and despised. It was much more effective than legal or court action, which would have take months and had an uncertain impact.

If we accept that we need to give special attention to dignity and give it a heightened value and protection, we should also ask about the best way to achieve it. Is it by law? Or by interdict? Is it by attacking artists? By threatening to stone those who don’t comply. Is it by boycotting newspapers? Is it through social pressure? Through moral leadership?

There is a problem here of what I call moral creep. Some of the protagonists have moved from issues of dignity to issues of disrespect, of the president and his office. These two issues are being meshed together and I think they are different. There is a long history of presidential respect laws in Africa, laws which criminalist disrespect for high offices, and many writers, artists and journalists have fallen foul of such laws. We were in danger of it recently when a man was convicted for spilling his drink on the president, or a student was detained and assaulted for making a rude gesture towards his entourage. I don’t believe we want to or can, under our constitution, go anywhere near that. So one needs to draw a very firm distinction between dealing with the dignity of all, and demanding special respect for big men leaders.

But there is definition creep here, and a concern that to make special concessions on the first issue, dignity, will creep into the enforcement of respect for those in high office.

Interestingly, this controversy comes along with two others around freedom of expression which have occupied us in recent weeks. The first is the tabling of draft 28 of the Protection of State Information Bill, what is known as the Secrecy Bill. It was notable that initial reactions to this latest draft were tepid and cautious, even though it introduced a version of the public interest defence we had all been fighting for – albeit half-heartedly. Of course, activists were reluctant to admit that there were real advances in the draft, and more – and rightfully – concerned to highlight the elements that were still problematic. But the fact remains that porter and petition had forced the government to respond, not unlike what happened with e-tolling.

At much the same time, the Press Freedom Commission issues a report calling for the printed media to move from self-regulation to something called independent co-regulation, a name whose principal virtue is that nobody knows what it means. When the ANC wanted something with the chilling name, Media Appeals Tribunal, we knew exactly what that meant – so the answer was to come up with a name that nobody understood. But my point here is that the ANC secretary general jumped up as fast as he could, within minutes of receiving the report, to say that the party was satisfied with the recommendations. He was moving quickly to put to bed the idea of a state tribunal, and forestall his colleagues who might not want to retreat quite so elegantly.

Our democracy has been on display in all of this. An imperfect democracy, certainly, but also a vibrant one. If democracy is measured by the open contestation of ideas, options and policies, by battles for position rather than having them imposed from above, by the capacity to challenge authority without fear, then ours is alive and well.

I raise these things because I think we are apocalyptic in our view of this country. We have been caught up in doomsday language about democracy, about a setback being the end, about it being all over, the values of the new democracy being thrown out the window. If our democracy is less than perfect, we say it is dying. If a Bill passed by parliament threatens journalists, it is the end of freedom and farewell to investigative reporting. If we lose a political battle, we think we have lost the final war. We have lost the capacity to appreciate a good victory.

What we have been seeing is government on a number of issues having to retreat in the face of citizen activism, what I call protest and petition, especially through the courts. The ANC might be retreating from the progressive social agenda of the 1990s, but they are also, mainly because of their internal divisions, having to take more account of citizenry, particularly where it is organized and active.

I say this because it is becoming increasingly apparent not just that we have to be active and vocal in defence of values such as the freedom of artistic expression, but that there is a growing record of success. Battles were won and lost, but nobody was too scared to fight them. As long as we have an engaged civil society, and we resist those who would close it down, our democracy will thrive.

We need to learn to embrace controversy, dispute, debate, and not see every element of of it as a threat to democracy. We need to be less apocryphal, and not treat every lost argument, every setback we suffer, as the end of democracy. We need to celebrate our freedom and not live in fear for its loss