(File image) Julius Malema. Photo: Jennifer Bruce

Julius Malema has emerged as an unexpected defender of the freedom of expression, writing in Sunday’s City Press that he would be buying two copies of the newspaper that the ANC and its alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu, have decided to boycott.

Twitter reverberated on Sunday with Tweets saying copies of the newspaper had sold out across the country. This came in the wake of the call for a boycott until City Press editor Ferial Haffajee removed from the paper’s website artist Brett Murray’s now-world-famous portrayal of President Jacob Zuma.

“Of all freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights, the right we should defend with our lives is the right to hold different opinions on how we view society and how we think certain matters should be handled,” Malema said in a column written under his name and published on page six of the newspaper.

“Our forefathers thrived for many years in difficult times because they cherished free press and freedom of expression.

“Banning newspapers simply because we disagree with them, and boycotting them on the basis of believing that our conception of truth is absolute, poses a real threat to our democracy.

“Even when we expressed utmost anger against a BBC journalist – which we later apologised for – we never took a decision to ban the BBC or the journalist from our press conferences, because we need to protect everyone’s space to disagree.”

Malema said he normally did not read newspapers, but would buy two copies of City Press – although the paper had “vilified” him in reports on his business dealings – “to protect the true values” of the ANC.

“We should be very worried that the voice of reason is disappearing and no one has the courage to stand up and speak against undemocratic and potentially despotic practices from within the ranks of the democratic movement. What happened to genuine leaders of the ANC?

“Once this voice is silenced and remains silent, many will be casualties of the intolerance… The question is, ‘Who’s next’?”

Writing in her own column, Haffajee said that among the sharp lessons she’d learnt in the past week was that the ANC “no longer leads; it can no longer be trusted to pull us back from the brink as it did when Chris Hani died”.

In an open letter addressed to Zuma’s daughter Duduzile, Haffajee wrote: “I understand that what is a work of satire to me is a portrait of pain to you. I understand the impact on your little brothers and sisters, who may face teasing at school... And if they and your dad saw the work in our pages and it caused harm, then I apologise from the bottom of my heart.”

Haffajee noted a “common national dignity” was still under construction and the exposure of black genitalia was often a painful flashback to indignities suffered under colonialism and apartheid.

But she also expressed disappointment in the response from the alliance, particularly the failure by the ANC to use dialogue as a way of finding a solution.

Haffajee said freedom of speech was not absolute, “it will take negotiation to decide where the dividing line lies”. This line could not be drawn with the barrel of the gun, “or by the rough kick of a jackboot”.

“I’m sorry that the ANC’s boycott call made me dig in my heels and not find the South African solution.

“The party your father grew up in is no longer the same. I knew it to be a party of ideas, debate and of reaching out. Not a soul from its midst has picked up a phone to City Press, though they claim there was engagement before the (boycott) call. Now I see the party led by men who will push us over the edge if it is to pursue their own ambitions.

“It saddens me that your dad is not stopping them (or) providing the leadership to stop the spears we keep jabbing at each other.”

Political Bureau