Mbeki foundation lambasts the Mail & Guardian

Thabo Mbeki. (AFP)

Thabo Mbeki. (AFP)

RIGHT OF REPLY

  Perhaps reflecting a dry news week, an inability to make sense of so much that is happening in the world around us or just exhibiting an existential crisis of sorts, last week’s edition of the Mail & Guardian led with a piece pretending to be an informed explanation of the first of former president Thabo Mbeki’s articles on the period of his presidency.

Accompanied by a photoshopped image of the former president donning cowboy regalia and a hunting rifle, the newspaper sought to conjure an image of a vengeful Mbeki on a mission to settle old scores.

  Reading the story (Mbeki is back, with guns blazing), one imagines a shebeen where all manner of urban legends proliferate. And so, the less said of it, the better.

The editorial (Please put a lid on it, Mbeki), on the other hand, is worth a brief engagement for its extraordinary counsel. It advises Mbeki to stop writing; to shut up.

At last, the M&G, one of our country’s self-proclaimed defenders of free speech, has let its guard down, revealing its true belief. Freedom of expression applies only to itself and those with whom it agrees.

The supposed reasons why Mbeki must shut up are that his first article did not discuss his “stance on HIV”, his supposed “failure in oversight that led to current electricity and water shortages”, his alleged “role in making the ANC into the patronage-dispensing machine it is today”, and that there are ANC factions that, like the (Economic Freedom Fighters), allegedly want to rehabilitate Mbeki for their own ends.

Supposing that we agreed with the M&G, are these justified grounds for gagging someone in a democratic society? What business are ANC and other political parties’ factional machinations to a paper that professes nonpartisanship? Is this an inadvertent admission that the M&G is not as nonpartisan as it claims; worst of all, that it intervenes in political parties in a factional manner?

The baseless charge that “Now Mbeki … shows every sign of wanting to influence South Africa’s path again” is in similar disposition as the M&G’s desire to gag him. No one, certainly not Mbeki, has explicitly stated or remotely implied that the articles are about issues other than those that served on the agenda of public discourse during his presidency.

The article the M&G complains about was the first of 10. Why does the newspaper think that Mbeki must not write if his first article does not raise the issues it protests it omitted? In principle, why does the M&G think it has a right to determine for him, or anyone for that matter, what to write and, by implication, what not to write, especially when the issues are of public interest?

Again, the reason can only be that the M&G has long determined that Mbeki represents views with which it fundamentally disagrees and does not want heard. The perverse reality is that, its rhetoric notwithstanding, the M&G is effectively a censorship board, unafraid to gag and to set the agenda of public discourse in ways more subtle yet no less asphyxiating than those of the Censorship Board of yesteryear.

Alas, somewhere in the dark corners of the psyche of this self-proclaimed torchbearer of free speech lurks an Idi Amin: “You have freedom of speech, but freedom after speech, that I cannot guarantee you.”

One might be expecting too much, but even in its Idi Amin mind-set, the M&G can surely do better than regurgitate swear words and phrases of no meaning and analytical value. What, for instance, does this verbiage mean: “It was vintage Mbeki, right down to the hint of a whiff of pipe smoke and armchair leather – and the blinkered paranoia, the disconnection from reality, and the belief that he can change by decree how South Africans interpret facts.”

Do South Africans interpret facts and reality in the same way? Which facts, whose reality, whose facts, determined by who, and why is a change in the interpretation of facts deemed impermissible in a democratic society?

The insulting charge that Mbeki believes that he can “change by decree how South Africans interpret facts” reveals more than it conceals the M&G’s own undemocratic belief that society has a one-size-fits-all lens of interpreting facts and reality. With this outlook, we may soon return to the era when it was widely believed that the Earth was flat, with the most grotesque and barbaric violence visited upon those who dared to suggest otherwise.

But the newspaper may want to ponder the words of Naom Chomsky: “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”

      Dr Brigalia Bam is chairperson of the board of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation

 

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