As submitted to the Daily Maverick
When the Minister of Higher Education calls for a painting to be “destroyed for good”, it’s difficult to not be reminded of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, the title describes the temperature at which paper auto-ignites, and the plot addresses the burning of books as a method for suppressing dissenting ideas.
Framed as a method of thought-control, the destruction or censorship of paintings and books should horrify all of us who hope to live in a free society. So instead of framing it in those terms, why not instead make a case based on “protecting the children”? After all, who but a moral monster would be opposed to protecting children?
This is not yet another column about Zuma’s Spear, but rather an attempt to highlight the creeping threat to liberty exemplified in Nzimande’s statement about The Spear, as well as the Film and Publication Board’s (FPB) decision to classify (images of) the painting as 16N. That the former hasn’t attracted significant outrage is a surprise, because even though Nzimande might well have been speaking as the leader of the Communist Party, he also happens to be the man who oversees the country’s higher education system.
As one of the thousands of academics whose professional lives are influenced by this man’s judgement, I have cause to be concerned about a statement like this. As do all of us, not simply through being invested in the country’s future, but because it’s a stark distillation of the level of cynical manipulation of voters that some in the ruling party are willing to deploy. It’s not simply inappropriate for a Minister of Education to call for the destruction of artworks – it’s a complete abrogation of his responsibilities.
But seeing as those he reports to happen to be sympathetic to that view, we should of course expect no censure, apology or retraction. Meanwhile, if the FPB could have their way, images of Murray’s painting would be scrubbed from the Internet lest some under-16 (or sensitive adult) happens to come across it. The danger is of course real, in the sense that a Google search for “South African art” might well highlight the offensive image in question.
The FPB will be engaging with Internet service providers and search engines to “enforce this decision going forward”, which could well mean the dusting off of the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, Malusi Gigaba’s plan to enforce the moral standards of a few right-wing Christian organisations on all of us. One of the organisations consulted in the drafting of that Bill was the Family Policy Institute (FPI), headed by Errol Naidoo.
You might remember Naidoo from his call to boycott Woolworths for their decision to take Christian magazines off their newsstands (the profitability of a private company obviously being subservient to Naidoo’s interpretation of God’s wishes). Or, perhaps you’d recall his involvement in blocking both Multichoice and TopTV from screening adult content.
But in case all of those campaigns happen to coincide with your preferences, we’re also talking about the person who called the Civil Unions Act a “grossly negligent act of Parliament”, and whose monthly newsletters rarely fail to mention the immoral and unnatural scourge of homosexuality, and the complicity of the “liberal media” in obscuring the imminent downfall of civilization that will be precipitated by consenting adults in their bedrooms.
The reason Naidoo and the FPI are relevant to the discussion around the FPB’s decision to classify The Spear is that the FPB statement laments the “suggestions made that have sought to question the integrity and independence of the FPB”. I’d hope that in this instance, integrity would include being guided by the spirit and letter of the Bill of Rights in matters such as freedom of sexual preference and orientation.
But this hope seems somewhat unfounded when you look at the FPB’s website. On their home page, you’ll find a sidebar element headed “Useful Links” – but you’ll only find one link there, and that link is to the Family Policy Institute. In case my objection is not entirely clear, I’m not making the claim that religion (or Christianity in particular) can have nothing useful to say in matters of morality or in decisions regarding what children should be exposed to.
The claim is instead that the FBP is endorsing an organisation, and a man, who is a proud homophobe, and who has repeatedly demonstrated that his views on sexuality in general seem to be plucked straight from the pages of Leviticus. To describe this link as “useful” seems somewhat at odds with integrity, at least as I understand it.
Perhaps there’s a more innocent explanation, namely that the FPB has no idea who or what they are endorsing. If this is the case, we have no less cause to question their competence in effectively performing the task of deciding what to classify and how to do so. Incompetence – at least from the perspective of those who wish to view artworks or movies – is hardly more reassuring than significant lapses in judgement.
So it’s not just that the FPB have made a ruling that’s likely to survive even internal appeal processes, never mind court challenges. The issue is also that the chilling of free speech or artistic expression can happen by degrees, and can be disguised by the motivation of “protecting the children”. Because, framed in those terms, who would dare complain? If you do complain – at least once protecting the children is understood in the terms of folk like Naidoo – you might as well confess to being a paedophile.