On speaking out

On Monday the Reader delivered this post by 23thorns about a high ranking police officer who brought in a sangoma* to investigate a break-in at his office.  Just in case you think 23thorns is making this up, here’s the link to the actual news report.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.  Someone asked in the comments whether something like this will hold up in court.  I jokingly replied whether he really wanted to know and got the following reply:

“I think someone else mentioned it, but this is a dangerous stand…. I hope you are flying under the radar.”

There was another comment on the post asking whether it was “safe to wax political in SA”.

I don’t know what upset me most about these comments – whether it was the fact that this is the view these people have of South Africa, or whether they are cautioning us to be careful about what we say.

Let’s take the first: The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, section 16, guarantees that,

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
    1. freedom of the press and other media;
    2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
    3. freedom of artistic creativity; and
    4. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

  2. The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
    1. propaganda for war;
    2. incitement of imminent violence; or
    3. advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

I’ll concede that these are just words on paper, but for the most part this right is still being protected by our courts, as is best illustrated by the numerous failed attempts by certain government figures to take legal action against cartoonist and satirist, Zapiro, for, well, showing everyone just how ridiculous they truly are.  In this country people go to court very quickly to protect this particular right and those fighting for the right to speak their mind usually wins.

Which is not to say government hasn’t tried to restrict this right on certain occasions (as most “democratic” governments try to do, no matter what their constitution says).  While we don’t yet have a law like our neighbouring Zimbabwe making it illegal to insult the president, many higher-ups have made sounds that we need a law like that, commenting often on “the dignity of the president”.  The situation isn’t helped by artists like Brett Murray who try to push the envelope with works like The Spear of the Nation that almost seem designed to make people angry rather than commenting on social issues.

More ominous, however, is the so-called Secrecy Bill passed earlier this year (ironically two days before we celebrated Freedom Day in South Africa) making it a criminal offence to own or divulge any information deemed by government as classified and giving unilateral control to certain members of government regarding what is classified (which of course constitutes a problem as the word “classified” won’t automatically appear on the document in your possession at the moment it becomes classified, which will most likely be exactly a week before you published it (at least, that’s what the records will show)).

At this point the biggest fear regarding the bill is that it would prevent journalists from exposing government corruption.  Others warn that this law is merely the first step towards the eventual abolishment of freedom of speech.

But for the moment still, it is safe to “wax political” in SA.  It is an inalienable right protected by the constitution.  Exercising that right has it’s risks, no matter where you are, and if you’re going to back down because a few people might get angry at you, I argue you didn’t deserve that right to start with.


* sangoma = traditional healer; practises alternative medicine, especially herbal medicine; also consults with the ancestors (spirits of the dead) to find out if a person’s problems might be caused by some disharmony within the tribal community; usually revered as wise ones within the community, similar to the north American shamans; legally recognised as traditional health practitioners in SA after undergoing training and initiation; not to be confused with witchdoctors who consort with evil spirits and who are often engaged to curse one’s enemies.