When a muppet takes on a puppet – Steve Hofmeyr vs. @ChesterMissing

downloadForeign readers, if you want a snapshot of how weird and emotive racial politics in South Africa can get, here’s one for you: A man who thinks that “Blacks were the architects of apartheid” has now filed a harassment charge against a ventriloquist’s puppet.

Chester Missing (whose book I previously reviewed) is the puppet of ventriloquist, comedian, anthropologist (and friend), Conrad Koch. The puppet’s Twitter account has recently been quite vocal in denouncing the racist – and bewilderingly contrary-to-reality – statement captured above, in part because it was made by someone with a large audience (on Twitter, but more importantly as an award-winning musician who has sold truckloads of records to people who like Neil Diamond, but in Afrikaans).

Missing has also been asking Steve Hofmeyr’s sponsors whether they are concerned about the negative impact on their brands that might accrue from being associated with Hofmeyr. According to Hofmeyr and some of his followers (from what I’ve seen, mostly folks who are routinely associated with Afriforum and/or Praag, organisations that are overwhelmingly white and Afrikaans, and who are – charitably – tone-deaf and emotionally crippled when it comes to race), this amounts to harassment and defamation.

I don’t think it’s defamatory in principle, as you can see above. However, as I’ve argued in the past, I do think it’s possible for criticism to be sufficiently abusive or misdirected that it should be reined-in. (Having said that, the issue in the piece linked just above, on Mozilla and Eich, was for me more about picking the wrong target – Eich – rather than his religion and religious beliefs.)

In this case, though, I don’t see anything in Missing’s Twitter stream that crosses any kind of threshold into abuse, harassment or defamation. By contrast, I think that Hofmeyr needs to take responsibility for the statement he makes above, and others he’s made over the years, which give clear credence to an interpretation of racism, as commonly understood. (Conrad Koch has explained why he thinks the most recent statement is racist on his website, in case you’re Steve Hofmeyr or Dan Roodt, and need this explained to you.)

I’ll close with an example of a absurdly wrong-headed understanding of free speech and censorship, from the Institute of Race-Relations’ Frans Cronje (their name is misleading, in that you’d think they’re about improving race-relations, but I’ve rarely found that to be the case).

Why I say it’s wrong-headed is that obnoxious opinions need to be tolerated. He agrees with me on that, or so he says in the last (chronologically) of the three Tweets I’ll embed here.

But he gets there via chastising Chester (without naming the puppet) for trying to “silence” Hofmeyr.

Chester is doing exactly that, in challenging Hofmeyr’s idea that black South Africans are the architects of apartheid. If Hofmeyr chooses to fall silent in shame (or whatever), that’s his choice. The only entity that has the power to forcibly silence Hofmeyr are the courts, and guess what – only one of the two parties involved (Hofmeyr) has approached the courts.

Cronje’s argument works entirely contrary to his objectives here, in that this is precisely an argument against Hofmeyr approaching the police or courts to silence Missing.

To close the circle of absurdity with regard to South Africa’s racial politics, remember that Missing, in this case, is the puppet who is reminding others that Hofmeyr thinks blacks designed Apartheid, and Cronje is the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations.

And, he seems to want Missing to stop criticising Hofmeyr, while having no problem with Hofmeyr’s lawsuit. Go figure, indeed.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.