Freedom of expression is repressed, but in a subtle and dangerous way
By David Letsoalo
The historic Black Wednesday, commemorated on October 19 every year to mark the day on which the apartheid regime banned black organisations, including the media, in 1977 continues to be observed as such even in the post-1994 dispensation.
This new order, under the ANC-led government for 26 years, is different from the erstwhile regime in that media freedom is a right enshrined in the Constitution, which is considered the supreme law of the land.
However, it would be naive to look at the question of media freedom from the same angle and perspective as if we were in the times of the Broederbond and apartheid (although they are entrenched in the fabric of our society). Unfortunately! Freedom of expression is still repressed, albeit in a veiled, subtle and dangerous manner.
This condition feeds the adage that says the enemy you see is less dangerous than the one that is hidden. It is in this sense that we need to ask critical questions about the state of media freedom in the context of the so-called “open, democratic and free society”, as this country is oft described.
There is no freedom of expression, and the repression and silencing of people’s voices is covert and embedded in the system and institutions of our society. It is the powerful that have the voice and essentially control the narrative.
In other words, and unlike in the past, repression does not take the obvious form of banning, shutting down media houses, jailing journalists, arresting individuals with strong views against the establishment, and so forth.
Living in a constitutional democracy premised on human rights calls upon us to interrogate what we mean by human rights. Quite frequently we are content with the mere knowledge that we have rights, without questioning whether we can exercise those rights, or under which circumstances these rights can be exercised.
Section 16 of the Constitution stipulates that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. But having a right does not equal being able to practically exercise the right.
The ability to exercise a human right is the fundamental feature of a free society. It is in this respect that various sectors of our society should be observed in order to assess the depth of our freedom of expression.
This is said against the real observation of unspoken or unwritten factors embedded in our lives that directly or indirectly silence our voices. These factors are so powerful as they are ingrained in our social structures and therefore become systemic claws that eat away our freedoms.
The exercise of rights has much to do with agency and power. The lack of agency or power translates into an implicit or covert denial of the right in the sense that this denial may be effected by an unseen hand or force. Freedom of expression, in actual fact, is for the brave and powerful.
The idiomatic expression that “the mouth that eats cannot talk” is relevant in this case, and best describes the situation in the country, and undoubtedly in other countries too.
This translates into the silencing power of benefits or crumbs given to individuals by those who are in control of resources or power. The expression that “the salivating mouth does not talk” applies to individuals who have some hope that they might one day be given the crumbs by powers that be.
In modern times these notions are represented by the analogy of the essence of “stomach politics”. This is prevalent in sectors such as political parties, government, university spaces, corporate sectors and different social milieus.
The consequence of this scenario is the creation of a citizenry or a society that comprises hypnotised, zombified and mindless individuals. This further explains the indifferent, conformist attitude and blind loyalty that characterise various spaces, particularly in academia and politics.
Academia is littered with such cases where, for instance, black academics students are trapped in an anti-African, liberal and Euro-American education practices and curricula.
The calls for transformation, decolonisation or Africanisation remain newspeak and simple rhetoric in most such spaces. The result is the continuous recycling and preservation of liberal thoughts and pro-white relations anchored on Eurocentric values as standards of excellence.
Unfortunately, and expectedly so, this has created a conformist cohort of black academics who have assumed a typical role of wanting to be endorsed and affirmed by Eurocentric systems. This environment, unfortunately, erodes the voice and place of an African revolutionary academic.
The unseen and unwritten silencing systems are most prevalent in the cutthroat sphere of politics. How many cadres have found themselves “afraid” to associate or speak out in support of a fellow comrade for fear of being victimised by those who hold power in such spaces?
How many cadres, known to be silent on certain party or government policy positions and actions only started speaking out after they were expelled or had exited their political homes or places of employment?
It is interesting that this covert or implicit silencing even extends to social media spaces where individuals turn into mere “ghost followers” of uncomfortable open discourses for fear of being spotted to sponsor certain views which might be inconsistent with their party-political line or views of a certain faction of the self-same party.
The so-called ghost followers are even afraid to “like” a particular comment or post on social media platforms. Of course, this is in fear of being prejudiced or victimised in one way or another. In the case of a ruling party, the fear might entail the fear of not being “deployed” to cushy positions or forfeiture of benefits or even blacklisting when it comes to the awarding contracts, or even being ostracised when it comes to power positioning in the party.
As recently as the lockdown level 4 period earlier this year, an African political leader in this “African” country, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, was caricatured by racists through images that portrayed her as an ape. The response from black people was in fact a far cry from what one would normally have expected, especially considering who Dr Dlamini Zuma is.
Where were all those who had been behind her throughout her political campaigns, at least?
It seems people are cautious that they are not targeted as being identified in one way or another for fear of having their food removed or their prospects of eating being upended.
Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela also endured similar painful attacks from racists, patriarchs and some within her own movement, while her own comrades within the ANC and Women’s League did not speak out in her defence, even when they could and should have.
A democratic free society requires our voices to be unmuted in order to avoid a nation without a conscience and soul as this amounts to the sale of soul and principle.
We need to get into a space where human advancement and opportunities in social, economic and political life are not at the behest of certain individuals, mostly the elite and the powerful.
It is terrifying to contemplate the predilection that we might be a society or a nation that is ostensibly living in a “free” constitutional order on paper with guaranteed freedom of speech, while in reality we have a predominantly silenced nation constituted by social robots rather than critical and engaged citizenry.
It is thus necessary to activate for consciousness-raising efforts on civic matters, and therefore take a more pragmatic and critical approach to the right to freedom of expression, and indeed all other rights. We should stop this limited and superficial understanding of human rights.
A compelling task is to pose the question: “What are the hands behind the media houses in this country?” In clearer terms, who owns the media? These forces behind the media platforms need to be undressed or unearthed, so that the practices and actions of the faces of these platforms may be contextually interpreted.
It is important to do this in order to critique the political narratives sponsored by the respective media facilities, especially noting the essence of the idiomatic expression of “the mouth that eats cannot talk”, and as Thomas Sankara would classically illustrate, “he who feeds you controls you”.
I am thus tempted to surmise that this exposition effectively explains why some analysts are overlooked and thus sidelined from various dominant media platforms, particularly radio and television, while other so-called expert-analysts proliferate the small screens and the airwaves to sing the master’s tune.
These observations need to be probed, especially the likelihood of the existence of “academic capture” in terms of which certain academics or experts are paraded as so-called “political analysts” hired to promote the agenda of the “invisible” hands or media bosses, which is frequently neo-liberal.
The unwritten silencing laws in these spaces explain the anti-black narrative that has predominated South African society despite the explicit freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution.
Unavoidably, this, in the reverse, further accounts for the effacement and erasure of revolutionary pro-African voices in the various sectors of our society, particularly in the mass media.
Let us hope that, going forward, Black Wednesday will be looked at from this complex and irritating perspective.
David Letsoalo is a Sankarist, an activist and law academic.
The Sunday Independent