Three Ps against progress
Three Ps stand between the progressive vision of our constitution and reality for most of our people: privilege, patronage and patriarchy.
Privilege is still largely white privilege, but the defence by the likes of Black First Land First of the Guptas on the basis that black privilege is an advance misses the point. Liberation is supposed to be for everyone, not a tiny elite. A society that moves from one race-based elite controlling most of its wealth and power to a slightly deracialised elite in the same position is not a progressive democracy. The poor and marginalised remain poor and marginalised.
Likewise patronage – that is not a manifestation of an equal society but rather a deeply unequal society. With equality, those in positions of influence cannot so easily buy loyalty. With a massive wealth and income disparity, patronage networks become a natural and self-perpetuating form of societal organisation. In Medieval Europe, feudalism was deeply unfair and deeply unequal. Yet it persisted for centuries.
Patriarchy too is an enemy of progressive democracy, as it narrows privilege to a toxic model of maleness that excludes females and anyone with a “nonstandard” gender identity from full humanity.
It is against this background that I revisit the furore around the infamous “fake-author” blog article in Huffington Post South Africa that advocated disenfranchising white males. Of course that is an absurd idea. But absurd ideas are the stuff of satire, so the question is whether this really crossed the line in the way the Press Ombud claimed – and so severely as to require the highest level of censure.
Hate speech – let us be clear – is not something I can defend. I also abhor excessive use of inflammatory and insulting speech – hateful speech – that does not cross the line into illegality. But did that article really cross any of these lines?
First, less us dismiss the issue of the fake identity of the author. This was not a news article; it was an unsolicited blog – nothing more in terms of editorial status than a letter to the editor. While it is wrong to misrepresent yourself in a letter to the editor, how many publications check authorship of letters to the editor? As a frequent letter writer, I can recall exactly one instance of being checked: by the New York Times. I received a phone call from them to check I was who I said I was. But that is not the norm: unsolicited opinion of this form is normally taken at face value.
Then there is the question of what, exactly, constitutes actionable hate speech. The test established in US case law for limits on free speech is clear and present danger. For example, then-presidential candidate Trump exhorted followers on more than one occasion to violence against opponents. Although this was repulsive and should have disqualified him as a serious candidate, since there was no direct connection between his speech and actual violence, he was within his rights of free expression. Our constitutional treatment of free expression is a bit more robust on protection against hate speech than the US; a similar test can apply but with the addition of “incitement to cause harm” for offences like racism. Even with this added protection, there must be some likelihood that harm will be caused. I argue that the clear and present danger test still exists, but is weakened to the possibility of harm, not imminent harm. To read it otherwise would preclude even hypothetical discussions of attacks on rights.
So did this blog article fail the test of clear and present danger – even in a weaker form? Definitely not. As a white male, I felt absolutely no threat that my right to vote would go away. The article was clearly satire; the possibility that this could become real was approximately zero. But there was a frisson of: “Wow, so that’s how disenfranchisement feels for others” – until I woke up to the fact that this could not happen.
Why was this article taken as such a serious contravention of the Press Code? Because it attacks two pillars of anti-progressive reaction: patriarchy and privilege (in the latter case, white privilege).
To illustrate how deeply the defence of these anti-progressive values are embedded in society, contrast this case with Zapiro’s repeated use of rape imagery in cartoons attacking Zuma, the most recent including the Guptas.
Zuma, along with the Guptas, represents the apex of privilege, patriarchy and patronage. Despite horrendous attitudes revealed in Zuma’s rape trial, the ANC Women’s League emerged as one of his staunchest backers. Depicting Zuma and the Guptas using rape imagery does not hurt them; they are part of the culture that diminishes women and corruptly concentrates power in male hands. They can laugh at something like this.
A rape survivor, on the other hand, cannot laugh. Rape is a crime that traumatises the victim deeply and sometimes the slightest reminder can be deeply triggering, reawakening memories of the actual event in vivid detail.
I put a complaint to the Press Ombud about Zapiro’s last rape cartoon. This turned out to be difficult because the standard approach is to take an errant editor to task and this time around the cartoon had appeared in numerous places. The best I could do was get a 250-word letter placed in one of the newspapers that had carried the cartoon. I was not left with a sense that this was seen as a serious transgression.
The level of outrage at wrongdoing should be weighted by harm done, especially to the vulnerable. Instead, the Ombud’s office seems to be more sensitive to harm done to privilege. So strong is the underlying societal bias that even someone like Zapiro, who outwardly has a progressive outlook, cannot understand when his cartooning hurts the vulnerable more than his targets, those abusing power.
If we really want South Africa to be the sort of society promised by our progressive constitution, we need to get seriously woke to privilege, patronage and patriarchy and how they defend themselves.