The South African Communist Party (SACP) recently repeated its call for the creation of an “anti-insult law” to protect President Jacob Zuma from criticism and ridicule by members of the public. This follows the ANC’s veiled threat of adopting an “insult law” to protect President Zuma in the wake of the open letter (penned by Sushi King Kenny Kunene) attacking the President. While many countries criminalise insults to their Presidents, such a law would never pass constitutional muster in South Africa. But this does not mean that we should not take care to avoid perpetuating racial stereotypes when we insult or criticise our politicians.
In the late nineteen eighties students at Stellenbosch University made up many rude Afrikaans songs about then State President PW Botha and his Apartheid government. One song mocked PW Botha’s wife, Elize, suggesting that she was so fat that she had could not fit into a normal car and had to be driven around in a Casspir. That same song also suggested that Botha was never going to have sex with Elize again. As I said, these were delightfully rude songs. They were aimed at insulting and mocking PW Botha, the Apartheid regime and the policies they stood for. We had enormous fun singing them. After all, few things are as satisfying as mocking a thin-skinned tyrant.
Times have, of course, changed. We now live in a constitutional democracy. Whatever you might think of the policies or personal beliefs and actions of our political leaders (whether Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille or anyone else), they have been democratically elected. None of them are tyrants.
Not that this has stopped citizens and fellow politicians from mocking and insulting our leaders.
Kenny Kunene recently called President Zuma a “monster” and a “tyrant” because Zuma has been horrid to his friend Julius Malema. Zapiro draws Zuma with a showerhead sprouting from his head to mock his statement made in court about taking a shower to limit the risk of contracting HIV. Comedians regularly mock Zuma because he appears to be in the pocket of a rich Indian family. Julius Malema once called Helen Zille a “racist little girl” more or less during the same period when he called Lindiwe Mazibuko “Zille’s tea girl”. Theuns Botha was recently reprimanded for making a shockingly racist baboon slur towards another legislator. Zille has, in turn, been called a “cockroach”. And not so long ago SACP leader Blade Nzimande himself insulted Mazibuko in Parliament by calling her a “coconut”.
Given the fact that Zuma is by far not the only leader being mocked and insulted and given, further, that Blade Nzimande has also mocked and insulted his political opponents, the call by Nzimande and the SACP appears extremely opportunistic. The SACP seemingly wants one set of rules to protect President Zuma (who, lets face it, often invite insults by the company he keeps and the things he says and does) and another set of rules that would allow them to continue insulting and mocking their political opponents.
It should not come as a surprise that a politician like Nzimande would opportunistically argue in favour of legislation that would protect his boss from insults and mockery, while indulging in insults and mockery of other politicians. Nzimande is a politician and he is being paid for being opportunistic.
What I find more surprising is that – judging by my Twitter feed – many seemingly level-headed South Africans (people whose opinions I respect) have sympathy for the idea that the law should protect the president and maybe even all politicians or all elders (at least the elders with whom they agree politically) from insults and mockery. The president, some argue, must be respected. Like all human beings he must be respected merely because he is human – not because he has done anything to deserve our respect.
They advance many interrelated reasons for this view. But they are not being consistent. If pressed, they might concede that not all political opponents or all human beings deserve respect and that it would be acceptable to insult some of them.
Wit Wolf, Barend Strydom, for example, who went on a racist murder spree, surely does not deserve our respect. The killers of Anene Booysen surely do not deserve our respect either.
And what about that silly Neil Diamond impersonator, Steve Hofmeyr? Surely you will have to be an exceptionally tolerant human being to argue that he deserves unreserved respect from those of us who happen to be younger than him? What about George W Bush? He started two wars that caused the deaths of thousands of fellow human beings, so why would he deserve unreserved respect? Besides, because many of the same individuals who argue that President Zuma or all older people should be respected, remained silent when Helen Zille bore the brunt of Julius Malema’s insults, something else (besides political opportunism) must be at play.
For the reasons set out above, I would be surprised if “African culture” is the only reasons for this demand that President Jacob Zuma should be respected – regardless of what he does and says. In any case, as we all know, there is not one definitive “African culture” which everyone in Africa follows and respects.
But I do not think that political opportunism as exemplified by Blade Nzimande can explain this demand for unreserved respect either.
I suspect in order to understand the demand for unqualified respect for President Zuma (and even for the passing of insult laws to protect Zuma) we have to look at South Africa’s particular history and at the context of deeply embedded racial prejudice.
Many white South Africans would often not respect black South Africans to the same degree that the would have if the person was white. Sometimes the disrespect is deliberate: many Barend Strydom and Steve Hofmeyr type racists deliberately refuse to acknowledge the common humanity of black South Africans.
Some (but not all) white people who do not even know that they harbour deeply embedded racial prejudices treat black South Africans differently and with less respect than they do white people. We might all love Madiba, but many of us whites would demand far more from a black person before we would respect them than we would demand from a white person.
Responses to this column will again illustrate that many white people do not accept or know that this is indeed true. It is exactly this denial that can be so infuriating and so sad. It is sad, sad, because the denial traps some white people in a cycle of fear, anger and guilt. Instead of trying to liberate themselves from the shackles of their own prejudice – an on-going and never-ending process – they deny their careless and (to them) invisible prejudice without realising this leads to more anger and fear – instead of liberation and acceptance of yourself.
I suspect that in this context it is not surprising that many (but of course not all) black South Africans experience the expression of disrespect for Jacob Zuma as disrespect for all black South Africans. Our president is one of the most powerful people in South Africa. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he symbolically reminds us that black people have been liberated from white oppression. When we criticise Zuma – as we must if we were to ensure that our democracy flourishes – then we can easily be viewed as criticising black people in general or the liberation project.
Personally I believe you cannot escape from this dynamic. If this is correct, it means white people can either retreat from the public space (a la Samantha Vice) or they can try to engage in the public sphere in a non-patronising manner while being acutely aware of the potential racial undertones that any criticism they offer might carry for many fellow South Africans.
That is where I find myself: I try to be robust in my criticism of President Zuma and other leaders – after all, to hold my (black) president to a lower standard than I would have held a white leader would be insultingly patronising towards all black people. But I always ask myself whether my criticism is phrased in a manner that runs the risk of perpetuating prejudices against black people in general. (What I never do is to worry what Blade Nzimande might think about my criticism.)
Having said all this, and having argued (implicitly at least) that we should be careful when we insult our leaders (or anyone else in society, for that matter) to try to avoid inadvertently perpetuating racial stereotypes, it does not mean that I believe insult laws are either needed or that they would pass constitutional muster.
Because we live in a constitutional democracy based, amongst others, on the Rule of Law, an insult law aimed at protecting the president or other famous and important people would never pass constitutional muster. This is because legislation that singles out a specific individual or position in order to give that one individual or one position special treatment compared to everyone else, would flout the very basic principles of the Rule of Law, namely that the law should apply generally.
Besides, an insult law will be abused by whoever is in power to shield him- or herself from legitimate criticism. And legitimate political criticism of political leaders is the lifeblood of any democracy. A law that in effect places one elected politician above the rest of us would therefore fundamentally undermine our democracy and would create a quasi monarchy. This cannot be squared with the principles underlying a constitutional democracy.
It is easy to argue that respect is earned and that no political leader can demand blind respect regardless of his or her statements and actions. But in a world in which many people suspect (or know from own experience) that many of their fellow citizens apply double standards when they must decide whether a person earned their respect (based on whether that person is white or black), the mantra of respect that must be earned becomes far more problematic. It goes without saying that the responses of some readers to this column will merely prove my point. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.