Which brings me to the second and, in my mind, more serious issue: that people, also living in supposedly free countries, would caution me against exercising this particular right.
Not only is this right enshrined in the South African constitution, it is also considered a basic human right in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and is protected by law in several countries around the world.
In South Africa, it is a right that was hard-won. Some found themselves shunned by their friends, family and communities for speaking out. Others found themselves removed from their jobs, their passports confiscated and even placed under house-arrest. Some even found themselves in prison, often without trial, merely for promoting ideas that differed from what government wanted people to believe. Authors, poets and artists found their work banned.
Here’s the thing: If those people had shut up when the going got tough, South Africa would probably not have been free today. Without men like Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela telling black people that they were worth more than the system wanted them to believe they would never have stood up and fought for their freedom. Without people like Helen Suzman, Beyers Naudé and Alan Paton, standing up against government from the inside at great risk to themselves, who knows what else would have been done. And we have scores of writers, poets, journalists and academics who made sure the wider world knew what was going on here, many of them not allowed to return to their own country afterwards.
Yes, things in South Africa are changing, but it’s too early to say whether the changes are good or bad. The way the ruling party is dealing with it’s own members who don’t toe the party line should warn us that all is not well. But that is not a reason to become careful, to start “flying under the radar”. On the contrary, now more than ever we need to exercise this right and speak out when we see injustice. Many of the old voices have gone quiet and many more a quickly fading away. New voices must replace them, because only that way will our freedom remain.
And if government should start cracking down on those of us who have differing opinions? Then I’ll still speak my mind, knowing I am following in the footsteps of many great men and women who spoke out even when that right was not protected by law. I only hope I can be as steadfast as they were.
This quote by Elie Wiesel summarises it well for me:
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
A closing thought: As necessary as freedom of speech is, it can never be absolute. It may never be used as an excuse to humiliate or ostracise another person. It’s not a vehicle to put someone in their place because you don’t agree with them. Every human right is tied to a responsibility and in this case we have the responsibility to respect the other. Satire is fine. Debate, even robust debate is desirable, to a point. But always remember that wisdom is knowing when to stop. Remember that there’s another side to the story and that you cannot demand to be heard unless you listen first.