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Academia and teaching Free Speech

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.

Previous posts on The Spear:

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Daily Maverick Morality Politics Religion

Little evidence of integrity at the Film and Publications Board

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.

Categories
General Morality Politics

Idiotic opinions on Zuma’s penis

There are of course plenty of examples to choose from, but here’s one instance of the sort of idiocy which has resulted from the Goodman Gallery’s display of the Brett Murray painting featuring Jacob Zuma’s penis (and the subsequent publication of the artwork by the City Press and others).

Ignoring the royal “we” of Qunta’s tweet below, as well as the (perhaps 140-character induced) spelling, there’s still enough here to ask why anyone would this an opinion worth expressing.


Legality isn’t the only thing that mediates art and speech. Legality is, though, the thing that ‘mediates’ (or rather, dictates) whether something is legally permissible or not. Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste whether you approve of something or not. But the point of a roughly free country is that your subjective preferences need have no bearing on what I’m allowed to see. Zuma, his daughters, his wives or whomever can say “we don’t like that” (the artwork, that is, rather than the penis. They could think that of the penis too, but that’s again a matter of taste. For the wives, at least) – but they can’t say “that’s not allowed”.

So, we have norms and values to inform (or mediate) the debate outside of law – to make the case for thinking something praiseworthy or blameworthy and so forth. But all this within a framework of recognising that it’s allowed, even if we don’t like it. And we have norms and values to guide us in areas that aren’t covered by law, and also to influence law via democratic processes, where you can vote according to those norms and values, and in doing so, hope to eventually influence the law.

But you can’t expect your norms and values to simply be the law. Because they are yours, not ours, and they’re not obviously the ones “we”should adopt. Because no matter how royal the “we” in your mind might be, it doesn’t include me – I see a portrait of a man who can’t be taken seriously for well-documented reasons, where that impaired moral standing is being highlighted through a certain form of artistic insult, and where the insult has been earned.

Of course this is insensitive to “culture”. But in this matter, where “culture” demands respect for a buffoon, or asks us to endorse the subjugation of women, it’s the culture that’s the problem rather than those who are disrespectful of it.