Last week on Thursday, Julius Malema, Commander in Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), was due to speak at a seminar organised by the Unisa union APSA. Another union, Nehawu, and a student organisation, Sasco, both aligned to the ANC, threatened to disrupt the event. At the eleventh hour, Unisa administrators decided to cancel the seminar for fears that a violent confrontation between opposing parties could unfold on the campus. Malema and his EFF supporters turned up anyway, and gathered outside of the building where the seminar should have taken place. Nehawu and Sasco supporters were also there, and the inevitable confrontation did take place. Insults were hurled, threats were made and guns were allegedly pointed. But all this is a minor distraction from the overarching worry of a major university which chose to sacrifice freedom of expression. These are the views of a freedom of expression activist, who is also a Unisa employee.
Last weekend was a very bad one for me. The thing is, I have a hobby. When I am not doing my day-job, I keep myself busy with being an activist. An activist for freedom of expression (FOE), to be more precise. It is an interesting way to use your free time. My little hobby has allowed me to meet and engage with very many fascinating people the world over, whether they be fellow activists, academics, journalists, media moguls or politicians. I’ve been involved in exciting research initiatives in this regard, taken part in high level discussions at cool sounding places in France, Sweden and the UK, and I’ve marched on the streets of my own country, protesting with placards with fellow Sefricans, all for the cause of promoting freedom of expression and more open access to information. Sure, my hobby has consumed almost every free minute of my adult life, but I’ve enjoyed it nonetheless. It is really a great hobby, not least because it is a great cause. But that wasn’t why I had a bad weekend. My weekend sucked because of my day-job. During office hours, I am an academic at Unisa.
Now, I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy working at Unisa. I love it, for reasons too numerous to name here. But because of an incident which happened at Unisa last week involving the EFF, Sasco and Nehawu, I was left in a conundrum. I was forced to ask myself – what does it mean to be an outspoken activist for freedom of expression who is employed by an institution which has purposefully limited freedom of expression?
Last week Thursday I was seated in a late afternoon session of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM) conference at NMMU in Port Elizabeth. A colleague leaned over to me and handed me her iPhone: on it was a news report about a nasty incident that took place on the steps of the Theo van Wijk Building – the building that houses my office – at the Unisa campus in Tshwane. The report also detailed that the event at which Julius Malema was due to speak, organised by the union APSA, had been cancelled by Unisa management. Aghast, I looked at my colleague and said, “This is a freedom of expression issue.” That was before the media had branded it as such. By Friday, various news reports surfaced which, in my view, rightly claimed that Unisa had played a part in limiting Julius Malema’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Apart from my sense of fury and outrage, I was literally flabbergasted that such a thing could have been enacted by a university which I had come to know very differently. The cancellation of the meeting by Unisa administrators was utterly out of sync with the various efforts by Unisa academics over many decades to promote freedom of expression in South Africa, which is what makes this latest travesty all the more unfathomable. For example, annually Unisa hosts, in collaboration with the National Press Club, the Percy Qoboza memorial lecture on 19 October in commemoration of Black Wednesday – a terrible day in 1977 when 19 organisations were banned, scores of critics detained and the World and Weekend World newspapers were shut down. Apart from many other conferences, workshops, colloquia and debates hosted by the university on matters related to freedom of expression, on 30 August of this year, the Media Policy and Democracy Project, which is a collaborative research effort between Unisa and Rhodes University, hosted an international colloquium on press regulation. This research project is partly funded by Unisa, and one of the main concerns of the project is that of media accountability as it relates to media freedom. I’m thinking also of the Big Media Debate on 12 October 2010, held in response to the call for a Media Appeals Tribunal, and the Media, Democracy and Transformation colloquium, hosted by Unisa in September 2011. Academics from the department of Communication Science, apart from myself, have produced work that has fed into various media policy debates, always with a concern for the complexities surrounding freedom of expression, including at parliamentary level. An academic from Unisa’s department of Political Science, Dr Phil Mtimkulu, served as one of the nine commissioners who, under the late Justice Pius Langa, formed the Press Freedom Commission.
My own mentor, the legendary media studies theorist, Prof Pieter Fourie, has throughout his career produced swathes of work on the challenges surrounding freedom of expression in South Africa, and during the dark days of Apartheid-era censorship famously testified as an expert witness in the Cry Freedom hearings of the Publications Appeal board, where he emphatically urged that the film about the political activities and death of Steve Biko should not be banned in this country. While Apartheid-era censors claimed that the film would incite violence within the country were it to be screened here, Fourie was reported to have stated that if the film was distributed in South Africa, that “the result will not be violence. It will only result in tears”. He did this at great personal cost.
Also during Apartheid, in his position as a Unisa lecturer, Fourie acted as a supervisor to an honours student who was completing his postgraduate studies from behind prison bars. The student was imprisoned because of his political activism and for promoting the interests of the then-banned ANC party. That student was Guy Berger, later becoming a professor of journalism and heading up the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, as well as dedicating a career to press freedom activism, both locally and around the world. Today Prof Berger is the Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO in Paris, and his exemplary conduct as an activist-academic still serves as an inspiration to myself and a number of my colleagues and students. I proudly boast that he is a Unisa alumnus. (He would probably roll his eyes if he read that).
And a little-recognised piece of trivia: the current Unisa Chancellor, Judge President Bernard Ngoepe, is also the Chair of the Appeals panel for the Press Council of South Africa – a body which has a history of actively campaigning for the freedom of the press, and, which one might add, has had a particularly hard time of doing so over the past few years.
In my own experience, Unisa has never been anything but supportive of my efforts as a freedom of expression activist. I would have found it difficult to work there if they had not been. And indeed, it must be said, much of my work as an activist would not be possible were it not for the university’s understanding and the flexibility of my work schedule, as well as the considerable resources (and I’m talking money) which Unisa has provided to me for such efforts. And this is apart from the consistent and enthusiastic encouragements which I regularly receive from colleagues, both from peers and from upper management. Regardless of any sense of ethics, or supposed collective understanding for the fundamental values of democracy, Unisa has invested great sums of funding to many of the above mentioned efforts. So, it seemed plainly weird to me that in this instance Unisa wasn’t putting its mouth where its money is. Weird, to say the least.
So far removed was Unisa’s actions on the EFF incident from this tradition of a commitment to the virtues of freedom of expression that it occurred to me that Unisa’s management was entirely out of touch with the work of its own academics. Whatever the case, my mind spent last weekend bubbling with internal fury.
Monday morning arrived and my first point of call was the office of my boss, Prof Danie Du Plessis: I burst in through his door and threw what can best be described as a mini-tantrum. After that I contacted the Vice Chancellor Prof Mandla Makhanya, the Vice Principal of Operations Prof Barney Erasmus and the Unisa spokesperson, Martin Ramotshela. Putting this into context, Unisa is a gargantuan university and within the academic hierarchy I am but a minnow: a not-very-important-person quite close to the bottom of the food chain. So I braced myself for what I thought was inevitable: that these guys would do their utmost to shut me up, prevent me from writing this column, and threaten every form of disciplinary action and reprimand.
But I believed Unisa’s decision to cancel the APSA meeting to be wrong. So I went ahead.
In the past I’ve written a number of columns which have been rather unfavourable reviews of a few people/organisations, and I am not in the habit of giving anyone a ‘heads-up’ before criticising them here. From a purely personal perspective, the easier option may have been to write this column without having contacted the Unisa head-honchos, and go into immediate exile after it being posted (okay, maybe that was a bit dramatic). But because Unisa’s action in this matter was so out of sync with the tradition of so many of the university’s previous endeavours, a travesty really, I set about trying to understand what on earth had motivated the decision. So, in trying to get to the bottom of that motivation, I could not get around having to contact these guys.
What I uncovered in this regard was almost entirely symmetrical with what has already been reported in the news, so I won’t elaborate too much here. In a radio interview with Stephen Grootes, Martin Ramotshela explains that Unisa administrators felt that there were legitimate security concerns surrounding the event, since Nehawu and Sasco had threatened to disrupt proceedings should Malema make an appearance. The official tack is that the event was cancelled to prevent damage to Unisa property and to protect the physical safety of Unisa’s staff and students. That concern did prove to be valid, since a violent confrontation did end up taking place, which may or may not have involved firearms (depending on who you believe) – but that is really beside the point. A lot of facebook commentary pointed out that if we were to start canning the speaking platforms of political figures on the basis of security concerns, then politicians in South Africa would really have to start considering a career change. Where politicians take to podiums, security concerns will always arise. Full stop. There is nothing to be done about that, whether the security concerns are real or imagined, so to justify limitations on freedom of expression on security grounds will always appear as censorship. For Unisa management, this has turned into an inconvenient truth.
When I spoke with Ramotshela, he told me that when Unisa’s security staff had done an assessment of the security issues related to the proposed event, they had taken into consideration the ructions at the University of Johannesburg in July, where ANCYL supporters had chased a group of EFF members off campus. In that case the university was not responsible for the cancellation of the event, but its security guards nonetheless actively assisted the ANCYL in expelling the EFF from the campus. That event seemed to egg on the decision by Unisa management to cancel last week’s event. But this is a dangerous route to follow. Justifying one’s limiting of free expression, because someone else did it first, is no justification at all.
I still think that Unisa management’s decision was wrong. What do I think they should have done? Grootes has already said it. If Unisa had safety concerns, they could have called in the army to protect the right of free expression (and ensure the safety of all involved). Universities are meant to be stages of debate and contestation, and in a country like South Africa, this is not for sissies. Unisa needed to ‘man-up’ instead of wimping out. What do I think Unisa management should do now? Simple: eat a little humble pie, issue an apology to the EFF, and extend an invitation to the EFF (and Nehawu and Sasco) to speak at the university, whether these parties wish to do this in the same room on the same day and slog it out with one another, or whether they prefer to do this separately.
Those of us who are accustomed to debates about social justice often assume that an understanding of human rights is akin to common sense – something that everyone ought to automatically just know, as if knowledge of these rights is soaked into one’s brain by osmosis. As an educator I can assure you, this is not the case. A good knowledge of human rights, how to practice them, and how to refrain from infringing on the rights of others is something that requires teaching and learning. Rights surrounding freedom of expression are not an exception. A case in point surfaced in a research project I was involved with earlier this year, which assessed the independence and freedom of the media in sub-Saharan Africa. Research reports collected from across the continent revealed something about post-conflict and post-authoritarian African societies which may surprise many South Africans. In many such countries there are few regulatory or legislative limits to freedom of expression, but citizens and journalists alike still practice widespread self-censorship. The constitutions of all these countries (like ours) protect the right to freedom of expression, and yet still citizens do not practice this right. Why? The problem is a collective psychology of silence. Simply, people who are unaccustomed to the idea of free expression, who have historically not operated within a political landscape where this would be allowed, and where freedom-of-expression-literacy is low, are not likely to practice this right.
That is an extreme analogy, but the point here is that the Unisa administrators who selected to cancel the APSA event evidently failed to fully understand the right of freedom of expression. At the time their view was that the university’s staff and student’s right to safety, to freedom from harm, and their right to a safe environment superseded Mr Malema’s right to freedom of expression. But one human right should not so easily be elevated above another, or be ‘protected’ at the expense of another.
For my own part, I spent a bigger part of last weekend than I would like to admit, memorising a tirade-type pre-prepared speech which I would spew out with much gusto at the first Unisa administrator or manager who so much as insinuated that I should refrain from writing publically about the cancellation of the event. I was going to rage on about refusing to be subjected to any type of pre-publication censorship by my employer, or any form of personal censorship for that matter. I never got to use my speech. Neither the Vice Chancellor, nor any of the other persons whom I engaged with about the matter at Unisa even so much as suggested any concern for my open criticism of the university. Instead I was encouraged to do so. It would have been easy for any one of them to politely ask me, as a colleague, to go easy on Unisa is this piece. I would have refused, but they did not know that. I was more than just a little impressed by that.
It is my sincere hope that in the future Unisa will afford the opportunities for freedom of expression which they have allowed to me, to others as well, whether Julius Malema or anyone else. The bright side to all of this is that I believe that Unisa’s administrators, although they are not likely to publically admit it (though they should), will have learnt from the error of this experience. I hope that when faced with similar conundrums in future they will do better. I know that if there is ever an inkling of an indication in the future that they won’t, that I will be the first to tell them to get with the programme. DM
*Disclaimer: Dr Julie Reid is an academic at Unisa, a project leader for the Media Policy and Democracy Project, a member of the Right2Know Campaign and the president of the South African Communications Association. The views in this column are her own and do not represent the positions of any of these organisations.
Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.
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