End to freedom starts with burnt books


Some people think that burning books and threatening authors is acceptable. It is important that we collectively push back against such nakedly thuggish behaviour. There are too many dangerous thugs who are hellbent on subverting the democratic project.

On Tuesday, a bunch of goons descended on the launch of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State — Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture at Sandton City’s Exclusive Books. Some of them ripped pages from copies of the book and intimidated attendees, successfully disrupting an event that, ordinarily, is hardly more than an early evening meeting of polite book-lovers.

At the same time, the ANC Youth League in the Free State released a press statement in which they proudly declared their intentions to burn copies of this book on Monday. The press statement was not clear on whether these Free State-based hooligans intend to steal copies of the book or whether they will have the decency to buy those they wish to burn.

Either way, these are events that are inimical to the ideal of a deliberative democracy that is founded, in part, on a commitment to open contestation of ideas rather than neutralising and intimidating those whom we disagree with.

One cannot exaggerate what is at stake here. Democracy is defined by attributes that are part of the very concept of democracy. Speech rights, of which our media freedoms are a subset, enable us to give expression to other civil and political rights, including the right to vote and the right to participate freely in politics.

If you have public discourse in which people choose to self-censor because they fear violence being meted out if they were to write books, opine sharply on the issues of the day, or if they were to engage in debate openly and honestly, then your democracy’s foundations are weakened. Your political culture is less democratic if citizens, including journalists, researchers, academics and authors, must think twice about entering the public arena and playing in the marketplace of ideas.

That is why the kind of intimidation we saw this week should not be taken lightly. It is an assault on the rule of law and on our constitutional values.

Of course, one can protest. There are many examples of peaceful protests, even at book events, such as at the launch of Stephan Hofstatter’s Licence to Loot. Protest is part and parcel of our political culture and, indeed, part of our democratic political culture. There are, however, legal and ethical limits to protest. The destruction of property is unlawful and transgresses the moral limits of protest as a legitimate political tool.

Only in a society, such as the apartheid state, in which the entire legal system was described, in jurisprudential terms, as a wicked legal system, can the use of violence to topple the evil behemoth be morally defended.

In a democratic society, the use of violence isn’t permanently excluded as intrinsically immoral but there is a far smaller range of circumstances in which the destruction of property or even intimidation could, maybe, be morally defended.

No offence to Myburgh, but his journalism, and his person, are not examples of legitimate targets for violence. The best way to defeat ideas you disagree with in a democracy is to show the ideas to be based on demonstrable falsehoods or logic that is not compelling or both. That, in turn, means you must read the works of those you disagree with, think carefully about the content of those ideas, test the sources and claims made in those works, and then begin to articulate where, why and how you disagree with the works.

You cannot short-circuit that intellectual labour by burning books or by threatening the author. Those are anti-democratic tropes and not exemplars of embracing the speech rights we fought so hard for.

I am not convinced the goons read this book. If I set them a simple comprehension test about random claims inside the book, I bet you most of them would fail the comprehension. (Think I am being unkind? Here are three random questions: Between 2009 and 2018 what was the total amount of irregular expenditure in the Free State department of human settlements? Who is Mike Mokoena and how does he feature in the book? Was Ace Magashule ever charged with treason? You will find the answers, not in burnt pages of Gangster State, but by reading the book and pressure-testing the evidence in it. The book is also well-written, so enjoy digging in!)

But if the goons are not really into books then an urgent question arises: “Who are they?” It doesn’t take a magician to figure out what is patently obvious here. These are hired thugs doing the work of whoever sent them to Exclusive Books in Sandton. That is what is scary. It means that the very gangsterism in our politics that is told in spectacular detail in this brilliant book was on full display this week. Folks with too much power, access to money, zero ethics and who are afraid of going to jail want to shut down all accountability mechanisms. Therefore, even our criminal justice system must be captured.

Civil society organisations and the media were harder to infiltrate. Journalists expect to be poor and hardly any of them, barring a negligible one or two, could be captured with bags of hard cash. It is for this reason that journalists are a threat to those who do not want to face the legal music.

Gangster State provides the basis for law enforcement agencies to work more efficiently in the fight against corruption. The thieves will not simply go away. They won’t hand themselves over. They will fight and they are fighting. And the range of tactics they will and are using range from propaganda warfare, spurious threats of legal action and, ultimately, brutal violence including death threats to intimidate journalists, academics and authors.

Without condescending to the public, I honestly despair when I see a lack of solidarity with journalists. I remain convinced, and have written on this before, that many South Africans do not see the connections between media freedom and their own material wellbeing. If journalists cannot do their work honestly, including writing books that ruffle feathers, then the ability of citizens to exercise their political rights fully will be irreparably harmed.

We need journalism and that includes journalism that makes us uncomfortable, challenges our world views, threatens to undermine our beliefs about our favourite politicians, et cetera. We cannot only celebrate writing when it props up our deepest beliefs.

The test of your commitment to the democratic project doesn’t arise in cases in which you read or watch or listen to material with which you concur. It is tested when you encounter ideas that you disagree with deeply. What we are witnessing in parts of our body politic is a disdain for deep disagreement. This is why, for example, the Economic Freedom Fighters respond so poorly to critical content in our media. And we are seeing the same disdain for disagreement from many ANC politicians and party supporters.

If we do not immediately nip this in the bud, we will regret our lackadaisical attitude. Eventually the goons won’t only burn books. Eventually the goons will burn houses and people — unless we stop them in their tracks right now. 

Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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