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UCT Art Row: Without freedom of expression, the rule of South Africa’s tyrants would be absolute in the future


Imraan Coovadia is Director of the Writing Programme, University of Cape Town

Pierre De Vos’s apologetics and obfuscation around the removal of statues and paintings at the University of Cape Town is worrying. It reflects the ideological hold of the Economic Freedom Fighters over our society.

Having admired Pierre de Vos on account of his pieces in the past, I read his defence of censorship on 11 January 11 with some regret. De Vos simply denies there is a problem with the removal of statues and paintings, suggesting that UCT is not bound to display any particular work of art forever. Against this unusually helpless straw man, he is devastatingly effective, proving that there is no such thing as censorship at all. Would it be censorship to take books out of the library and bury them underground? Would it be censorship to burn them or allow them to be burned? Not, so far as I can tell, in the eyes of Professor de Vos. But it would be censorship if a gallery in the United States took down an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicit photographs.

Liberalism overseas and intolerance at home: the formula is as venerable as Jan Smuts. De Vos presents what was, in fact, a clear choice to withdraw and suppress numerous works of art, many by artists of impeccable political standing, and to accept the destruction of others without any real penalty for those who set them on fire, as a routine curatorial decision about circulating the works on display on campus. De Vos imagines that he is educating conservative white opinion about the need for cultural change and doesn’t consider that there might be a spectrum of views between the hard right of white reaction and the hard right of the EFF, Black First Land First, and other destructive extremists.

Under the previous vice-chancellor, in fairness, free speech was already threatened by university administrators — the cancellation of a debate on Israel by a humanities dean, and the disinvitation of a Muslim-baiting journalist on the authority of Max Price, were only the most obvious signs of it. But freedom of thought is clearly under threat from a popular movement allied to a new generation of administrators. I can’t find a trace of awareness in De Vos’s article of the broader climate which, as we know, has included book-burning, assaults on libraries, laboratories, and the essentials of scientific and economic thought. The old word for this fierce variant of nationalism was “revanchism,” seeking the restoration of lost lands. It has crippled political debate, along with the economy, and is the ultimate cause of the removal of works of art by people like Willie Bester and Omar Badsha. The heavy cost of resistance to this political engine has been felt by everyone from Mondli Makhanya to Pravin Gordhan (and his daughter) to Ferial Haffajee.

De Vos’s apologetics and obfuscation, along with the grave silence of PEN South Africa where he is on the board, is worrying because it reflects the ideological hold of the EFF over our society. For the EFF, the representatives of the people cannot commit a crime. Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, defending Julius Malema, made the formula explicit in court last month: “It is wrong to criminalise land occupation. It is also racist to do so because the majority of occupiers are black.” Trump, Modi, Orban, Netanyahu, and others follow the same logic overseas, but they govern strong societies. Our own state — and the schools and hospitals and power plants it is supposed to run — is disintegrating under the pressure of the underworld, inseparable in practice from the lawless splinter groups who say that they represent the people.

The best argument for freedom of expression, opinion and imagination in our country is that without these intangible freedoms the rule of South Africa’s many small and big tyrants, bad as they are today, would be absolute in the future. Could Jacob Zuma and his faction ever have been removed from power if our attachment to freedom of thought had been as tepid as that shown by the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance? DM

Imraan Coovadia is Director of the Writing Programme, University of Cape Town


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