Hands off our revered president Zuma

Comedians who have perfected Jacob Zuma's manner of speaking are unlikely to be affected by a law ­proposed by the South African Communist Party in KwaZulu-Natal aimed at protecting the office of the president.

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande said on Wednesday that a law preventing people from insulting a sitting president was more than necessary because white South Africans had shown little respect for black people and their cultures.

The party's KwaZulu-Natal deputy chairperson, Nomarashiya Dolly Caluza, told the Mail & Guardian that imitating Zuma was allowed.

"Yes, that can be done – imitating him. Why are people always picking on the negative things in the manner in which they are portraying the president? He sings, he laughs, he dances – but they will never depict that."

However, painting Zuma naked was simply not on, Caluza said. "If I myself, as a citizen, am drawn naked, this would be disrespectful of me, let alone the president of a country."

So how is it that when a Canadian artist painted her prime minister, Stephen Harper, naked, his office simply laughed it off on Twitter?

"We have African values," said Caluza. "We don't want to see [those aspects] of foreign cultures imposed on us in South Africa. According to African values, respect is the one thing which shows you are a human being … Our president is the chairperson of the African Union [sic], he has been elected to an international education committee, but in his own country he is not respected. We are saying enough is enough. We cannot just keep quiet and let them continue doing this."

Unfairly attacked
Previously, SACP provincial secretary in KwaZulu-Natal Themba Mthembu said discussions on the enactment of a law to protect the office of the president had followed what he called a "barrage of insults" directed at Zuma. But, according to Caluza, even former leaders have been unfairly attacked.

"We've been observing this since 1994, since democracy," she said. "Nelson Mandela was drawn as a baboon – that was an insult to him, the [then] president of our country.

"Also, in 2006, the Democratic Alliance invited the media to go and inspect the home of former president Thabo Mbeki, which was being upgraded. That was an insult, because if you are not happy there are platforms created by our Constitution which allow you to raise these issues."

When asked why the party had only called for an insult law now, Caluza said it was because things had degenerated during Zuma's term.

"We can't have the president – the number one person in the country – being undermined, attacked and insulted through cartoons, through paintings showing him naked, through the different types of media. We have the president attacked on a daily basis. This can't be correct, because he is an ambassador for the country."

Caluza said the party was not saying the president was immune from criticism, but that appropriate platforms had to be used when criticism was necessary.

"One of the principles of the SACP is criticism and self-criticism, but what we are saying is that these people who are undermining and doing these things in the name of freedom of expression and democracy are not criticising. When we say criticism and self-criticism, there is a platform where these things can happen. There is Parliament where these issues must be raised. There's also a public protector. People are aware of these platforms where they can engage positively."

The Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People constituted an "anti-majoritarian liberal offensive", she said. "They will run from platforms created for such discussions, because they fear that they are a minority which will be outvoted, so they opt to go to the media instead. They know in Parliament the rule of the majority will prevail."

However, Caluza said the insult law would protect white presidents too: "That law will protect even the president in office 20 years from now. Even if the DA takes over, that law will protect Helen Zille as president of the country. I know that will never happen, but I'd like to see that appearing [in your article]."

Taking offence around the world

According to Nomarashiya Dolly Caluza, the deputy chairperson of the South African Communist Party in KwaZulu-Natal, insult laws are nothing new. "They exist in other countries. Remember what happened to the person who called the queen a whore, what happened to the man who insulted the king in Thailand. Even the United States has insult laws protecting people, especially public figures …" she said.

Even though international judicial bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have ruled that such laws violate the fundamental right to free speech and a free press, many countries still use them, according to the Middle East Partnership Initiative's website.

  • In 2006, the World Press Freedom Committee published a report that studied how insult laws were applied, changed or eliminated in 70 countries.
  • Project director Javier Sierra said some of the worst abusers of insult laws at that time included Iran, Turkey, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Morocco. Insult laws originated in the Roman Empire "to shield the emperor from public criticism," according to the World Press Freedom Committee website.
  • Last year, Thai-born American Joe Gordon was convicted of translating excerpts of an unauthorised biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej from English into Thai and posting them online. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison before receiving a royal pardon in July.

Gordon recently told the media that those jailed under Thai laws protecting the royal family often suffered abuse from prison guards, who treated them like "animals". However, a number of countries, especially in Latin America and Africa, are eliminating these laws. Indonesia's Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional laws that banned insulting the country's president and vice-president a few years ago. And although a number of US states and territories have laws on criminal defamation, they are rarely used.

The US's Founding Fathers once enacted a law against journalistic freedom called the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalised publication of what were considered insults against the country's president and members of Congress. The Act expired in 1801 without facing a test in court and was denounced by many respected statesmen at the time, including Thomas Jefferson. –

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