Speaking out to silence others has no place in these elections

Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Nation and senior IFP leader Thulasizwe Buthelezi, left, and Siboniso Duma, Economic Development MEC and ANC KZN chairperson.

Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Nation and senior IFP leader Thulasizwe Buthelezi, left, and Siboniso Duma, Economic Development MEC and ANC KZN chairperson.

Published Mar 19, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

Everyone knows free speech and unhindered political activity are under attack in South Africa as politicians scramble for votes ahead of the May 29 national and provincial elections.

Revelling in their self-created victimhood, incumbent politicians at municipal and provincial levels not only refuse to invite their opponents to speak at government-organised public meetings or to debate ideas they disagree with, but actively seek to silence them verbally and physically.

The latest incident took place at KwaCeza last Saturday at a KwaZulu-Natal government event to honour late Zulu king Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, when Economic Development MEC Siboniso Duma abruptly grabbed the microphone from the recently appointed Zulu traditional prime minister and senior IFP leader, Thulasizwe Buthelezi, while he was introducing King Misuzulu kaZwelithini.

It rings alarm nationwide as it is believed to have resulted in a physical altercation between IFP and ANC supporters later that day.

So shocking was the incident that it became a prayer item in churches nationwide, and through the prominent voice of Cardinal Wilfrid Napier – the Election Monitoring Network, KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, KwaZulu-Natal Religious Leaders Forum and others – there has been widespread condemnation.

Cardinal Napier told a meeting yesterday of religious leaders of plans to urgently meet with national and provincial leaders of affected political parties this week, as signs of political intolerance are fast emerging in several provinces.

Political causes that challenge the sorry state of our society, including faith leadership’s moral regeneration crusade and traditional leadership’s assertion of cultural values as ways of protecting vulnerable communities from discrimination, become targets for public vilification by politicians.

An entire generation of “millennials” enters active politics as first-time voters without the emotional resilience to cope with disagreement, especially during election campaigns.

The danger posed by the re-emergence of once-dormant political tensions militating against free and fair elections is not just a nuisance confined to a few localities in one province: core enlightenment values of individual liberty and reason are under threat.

A rising sense of panic has accelerated during the past three or four weeks, fuelling an alarming narrative of a deterioration in news stories and political speeches in South Africa daily as election campaign activities spread.

The philosopher Karl Popper pointed out in his Paradox of Tolerance that “if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them”.

With this in mind, those of us with authoritative voices must continue to nudge politicians addressing public gatherings to resist the onslaught of the intolerant, not least for the sake of young voters and the citizens entitled to the right to free and fair elections, which no one must deprive of the opportunity for open discussion, which is fundamental to democracy.

Silencing tactics directed at individuals who challenge government policies and shortcomings are a form of harassment and can take a high personal toll. Utterances and hostile actions intended to silence the legitimate speech of others have a chilling effect on a wide range of political freedoms, such as association. They are not worthy of accommodating in a democratic society.

The ANC local and national leaders have been eager to add their voices to this moral panic instead of perhaps acting more responsibly and maturely, given their incumbency responsibilities in promoting political tolerance and national reconciliation.

IFP national spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa told the media that the party condemned all forms of violence and raised concerns that “the ruling party alleges, without offering any evidence, that IFP supporters are responsible”.

Senior ANC leader in KZN Mike Mabuyakhulu also condemned the attack on innocent members of the ANC, adding that “no government worth its salt could have allowed itself to be insulted with impunity at its event”.

Controversial speakers will inevitably be small in number, but attempts to stop them from speaking highlight a deeper problem, particularly the tendency to portray political and social disagreements as “hatred” or “bigotry”.

An orthodoxy is emerging that young people, especially the current crop of emerging politicians, routinely exaggerate and nurture their own emotional and political vulnerability. Faction leaders noticeably imported this idea to the ANC before 2018, where it received its best-known articulation in labelling factions with names like “Talibans” versus “Ankoles”.

In their 2015 Atlantic article titled The Coddling of the American Mind, lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt describe how American undergraduates have become increasingly prone to a syndrome of “vindictive protectiveness”, whereby individuals attack anyone or anything that threatens their emotional well-being.

Similar to what we are witnessing in this election campaign season, they describe how “political correctness” and its various campus manifestations, such as “safe spaces”, become a kind of pathology that not only harms the sufferer but damages the capacity to argue and reason.

While Thulasizwe Buthelezi may have plenty of options to be heard in mainstream media talking about his IFP election promises, the people he speaks on behalf of on traditional and cultural issues do not. Indeed, while there are many thousands of articles about which political party is likely to win control of which political constituencies, the overwhelming majority overlooking the moral and cultural values, incumbent politicians take notice of a tiny fraction of concerns raised by faith leaders and traditional leaders.

A speaker muted in a small political meeting affects a few hundred people. The grabbing of a microphone and silencing of a Zulu prime minister excludes many, which means millions do not get to hear these critical voices.

That is the elephant in the room; until religious, cultural, traditional, and opposing political voices get as much access to public platforms in government gatherings, his concern for respect for traditional ceremonies is, by a significant order of magnitude, wholly misdirected.

There is an important debate about how to negotiate access into different political strongholds across South Africa and how best to ensure that public utterances and conduct do not advocate for hatred, which constitutes incitement to cause harm. It is an issue too important to be treated with such casual disdain.

Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

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