Defend Truth


What we need is a little less freedom of speech

Dlamini is a writer, critic, traveller and portrait photographer. He also has a day job, sort of. His portraits of writers have been published in many top literary publications, but he mostly makes his living as Chairman of the Chillibush Group of Companies, which deals in the dark arts of advertising, public relations and event management. In 2007 Dlamini was the recipient of the South African Literary Awards' Literary Journalism prize. He regularly reviews books, especially from Southern Africa, and presents the The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast. Recent columns:

There are times when I wish that South Africa could have speech police, who would be to speech what the fashion police are to fashion. Except for stupid people rather than badly dressed people.

One of the first speech offences I would refer to the speech police would be the response by many public officials when they are interviewed on radio. “Good morning John, and good morning to your listeners as well.” I wonder who told these people that they should extend a gratuitous and completely unnecessary greeting to “your listeners” because the whole point of radio is that you are having a one-on-one conversation and it is enough for you to greet the host.

But like so much in our country, the bad habits spread the quickest, and now whenever you switch on the radio, you are likely to hear this ridiculous response. First it was the bosses, but soon their spokesmen followed suit, and now most radio hosts have to brace themselves for this inane response. What’s shocking is that it’s now moved on to TV interviews where I’ve heard the response, “Good morning Vuyo, and good morning to your viewers as well.” I often wonder why the army of advisers that public officials have at their disposal don’t tell them to drop this response.

Another one that gets to me is when you are out dining and you call your waiter and explain to him in great detail what’s wrong withyour meal – and just when you sit back expecting the order to be corrected, the restaurant manager walks up to your table all high and mighty and he barks: “What seems to be problem here?” No restaurant manager should ever be allowed to say this to his guests. We are not the minions that he lords over. Of course when he asks this rude question, he actually expects you to repeat a a long and usually unpleasant tale that you’ve already told to the waiter, and now you have to start all over again.I mean, as the manager, is it not his job to find out as much as possible from the waiter before he comes over to your table?

You would imagine that he would come over there to apologise to you for the inconvenience and to tell you what he’d done to fix it. Of course, if he’s not sure how to fix the problem, then he can at least come to you and say: “I understand that this is the problem and here’s how I would like to fix it. Is that okay with you, or would you prefer something else?”

I also find find it unbelievable when you meet an acquaintance or friend that you haven’t seen in a while and get, with a straight face: “Life is good neh? Your waistline is expanding; you are living well.” There aren’t enough words to describe just how incredibly rude this is, but it just gets casually tossed your way and I have often wondered whether it escapes people just how inappropriate this is or whether they just can’t help themselves. It deserves nothing but the rudest response so that those who make this sort of remark can realise just how utterly vulgar it is.

Another one that always gets to me is when you are on a flight, say to London, and the stranger sitting next to you thinks they can break the ice by turning around to say “Is it your first time to London?” Or even more ridiculous, “Where are you going to?” If this is the best line you can muster, then it’s better just to shut up and leave me alone to enjoy my flight.

Then there are the truly incredible one’s, like when a total stranger in the middle of a theatre show turns around to you and says, “What are they saying, I don’t understand Zulu?” Or a white dude turns to you and says “how do you say hello in Zulu?” As if it’s etched on my face what languages I can speak.

What the speech police would do of course is not lock people up, or even issue fines. It would name and shame them like the fashion police do, so that repeat offenders finally grasp the inappropriateness of what they say. Sure it would be wonderful if the speech police could issue fines, or even have the power to ban some of the things that pollute our ears, but we all know that once you legalise a fine in our country, you create an opportunity for a bribe. And that’s not what we want. We just want those who say things without really thinking about what they are saying to think twice before launching into careless speech.


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