The 2012 TB Davie lecture: Introductory remarks

On August 1, 2012, Ferial Haffajee delivered the 47th annual TB Davie Lecture at the University of Cape Town. As chair of the Academic Freedom Committee, I had the privilege of introducing her, and this is the text of my introductory remarks.

TB Davie led the university as Vice-Chancellor from 1948 until his death in 1955. He is remembered as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom. He championed this cause and the autonomy of the university, defining academic freedom as the university’s right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit.

This legacy is honoured through the TB Davie memorial lecture series, beginning in 1959 with a lecture by former chief justice and UCT chancellor, Albert van de Sandt Centlivres, after whom a building adjacent to this one is named. In subsequent years, the lecture has been delivered by, among others, ZK Matthews, Walter Sisulu, Wole Soyinka, Kader Asmal and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert.

When the Academic Freedom Committee invited Ferial Haffajee to deliver the 47th annual TB Davie Lecture, it was in the knowledge that we were inviting one of South Africa’s media luminaries. Her career started with an internship at what was then the Weekly Mail in 1991 – a publication at which she gained immediate exposure to the challenges of working in a medium where a desire to reveal and discuss matters in the public interest would frequently be met by powerful dissenting voices, requesting (and sometimes requiring) that you refrain from speaking.

After leaving the Weekly Mail, Ferial worked in radio as a producer and reporter at the SABC, before joining the Financial Mail as Political Editor, and later Managing Editor. In 2004, she rejoined what had by then become the Mail & Guardian, where she served as editor for 5 years. In 2009, she was appointed editor in chief at the City Press.

Throughout these 20-odd years, Ferial has been no stranger to controversy and having to fend off attempts at censorship. In 2005, the High Court barred the Mail & Guardian from publishing a story on the Oilgate scandal, detailing how the Imvume oil company had paid millions of taxpayers rands to the ANC. Just as the publication had done in the 1980’s, Ferial insisted on running the story, but with the banned segments blacked out.

In 2006, she published one of what became known as the Danish cartoons, to illustrate a story about the protests generated by the infamous depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Threats to both herself and her family resulted from this choice.

The committee knew all of this when inviting her to address us today. What we did not, and could not, have been aware of is just how appropriate a choice of speaker Ms Haffajee would end up being. I refer of course to the events of May this year, when Brett Murray’s painting The Spear was hung and then defaced at the Goodman Gallery, and published then later retracted by the City Press.

The Spear highlighted various fractures and absurdities in South African society. One absurdity, for me at least, was in hearing a sitting Minister of Education call for the destruction of an artwork. Another was the inconsistency between the near-complete silence from social media pundits as well as government spokespersons when members of the political opposition are racially slurred or crudely insulted, and the contrast between this and the outrage generated by the alleged lack of respect shown by this painting, and the publication of it. A morality that appears to be selective is difficult to fathom, and sometimes difficult to respect.

For some, it was of course always absurd that an act of satire could be this divisive, this inflammatory. For others, the lack of sympathy or understanding for the outrage was the real absurdity – and a real travesty of decency. In South Africa, these fractures are sometimes quite shallow beneath the surface. A key question is of course how to deal with them. Another key question is how one gets – and perhaps stays – in a position to be able to address them, and at what cost.

Academic freedom and media freedom are natural bedfellows, perhaps most obviously because of the symbiosis between a media revealing things that might benefit from academic study, and through academic activity frequently being newsworthy. But more crucial, perhaps, is media freedom simply as a barometer of a country’s freedom more generally.

In a 2009 interview, Ferial said “Until just over a year ago, I was singing that we enjoyed world-class media freedom, especially compared to some other African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where four radio journalists were murdered last year, or Ethiopia, where all independent journalists are in jail or exile. But the ratcheting up of rhetoric against journalists since Polokwane is very, very dangerous. There is a fundamental philosophical difference between how the ANC perceives media freedom and how we journalists see it.”

Explaining her decision to withdraw The Spear from the City Press website earlier this year, she remarked “I hope we are not crafting a society … where we consign journalism to a free expression constrained by the limits of fear. This week society began the path of setting its mores on how we treat presidents in art and journalism; what is acceptable and what is not.”

Expression is at most partly free when one is afraid to speak. Arguably, it’s not at all free. Demands for silence on the grounds of culture, tradition or offences to dignity can sometimes be self-serving in that they forestall much possible debate or reflection on the merits of an artwork or speech act. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire.

The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is simply to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, for example, merit special protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order, leaving us unable to discuss those ideas.

It’s easy to agree that a painting like The Spear is disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s part of the point. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory.

Many of you might share my hope that we can learn to deal with insults without feeling the need for protection from the courts, or from a Film and Publications Board which exhibits a very dubious moral authority in listing a known homophobic organisation as a “useful link” on its website.

I have this hope because it remains true that any restrictions on free speech on the basis of offence or slights to dignity threaten to put us on an unprincipled and very slippery slope. These sorts of things are perhaps easier for some of us to believe, and say, than it is for others. But it’s also true that some of us have easier access to the courts than others do.

Absolute freedom, including the freedom to offend, is usually not the only value at issue in contestations such as these. It is sometimes the case that one might be free to speak, but chose not to exercise that freedom – or simply, to regret having done so because the harms seem to far be outweighing any possible benefits, making absolute principles difficult to defend. As someone who experienced these dilemmas at first hand, we look forward to hearing Ferial Haffajee’s thoughts on creeping censorship, and the spearing of freedom.

You can download the audio of Ferial’s talk via this UCT page.

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