Words we are not allowed to use: Who decides?

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Crude words carry a price: Using the k-word in South Africa today to refer to black people can lead to legal action. In the picture, Vicki Momberg at her trial for abusing black policemen who tried to help her

WHAT SHOULD we do about the k-word? Flight crew evicted a woman from a flight about to take off from Johannesburg to Durban two weeks ago, after she used the word in an sms to refer to the black captain and passengers, and another passenger noticed it and complained to the crew. The woman, Alochna Moodley from Midrand, admitted it was wrong, but protested that the other passenger, Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza, invaded her privacy by reading her sms. She reportedly lost her job at her company as a result. Mabuza later said that although he forgave her after she made a public apology, he still planned to open a charge of crimen injuria (wilful injury) against her.

This follows another case when Vicki Momberg a white, former real estate agent was sentenced to an effective two years in prison for a racist tirade in 2016. She was found guilty of crimen injuria, after she had lashed out at a black police officer who helped her after a smash-and-grab incident in Johannesburg. In a video clip that went viral, she complained about the “calibre of blacks” in Johannesburg. She used the k-word 48 times. In sentencing her, the magistrate said the policemen who assisted her were in their uniform ready to serve, and Momberg’s slurs stripped them of their dignity. There was widespread public support for her sentencing.

The controversial word goes way back in South African history, and was once common among sections of the white population to refer to black people. To South African ears, it is profoundly insulting, implying that the person referred to is inferior, uncultured and subject to the power of the word’s user. Colonialism and apartheid’s cruel spirit embodied in a word.

It appears in important literature, for example through the mouth of a clearly racist Oom Schalk Lourens, a complicated character in a racial country created by one of the country’s admired writers, Herman Charles Bosman. Lourens says: “I could never understand why (G-d) made the ‘k’… and the rinderpest”

The k-word has a close cousin in the United States in the insulting n-word, which has long evoked emotional reactions. In February, two books regarded as literary classics – the Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, depicting racial injustice in Alabama, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain dealing with slavery in pre-Civil War America, which contains offensive language by racist characters – were removed from school syllabuses in Minnesota over fears their use of racial slurs would upset black students. Both books have been lauded over the years as anti-racist, although set in racially loaded contexts.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the decision, saying the books use hurtful language “that has oppressed people over 200 years.” But free speech organisations criticised it, with the National Coalition Against Censorship saying rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for dialogue to teach students to confront racism. It’s like banning Charles Dickens for portraying Fagin, the Jew.

The k-word and n-word have been red flags to a bull in South Africa and the United States. Now, in some quarters, including South Africa, a new word has been added: the z-word (Zionist), which has taken on almost as insulting a meaning when mouthed by virulently anti-Israel or anti-Semitic groups. How long will this list of no-nos become?

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ decision last week to lay criminal charges for hate speech against three men who posted violent Whatsapp messages against Zionists and Jews, saying the Holocaust will be a picnic compared to what they are going to do to them, will test free speech boundaries. Should those men be punished for hate speech, or are their utterances legitimate political discourse?

This country is early in the process of defining its red lines on speech. EFF leader Julius Malema, a firebrand political figure, uses militant racial statements against whites and Indians, such as accusations that “the majority of Indians are racists,” and barbs against other groups such as coloureds – should it be allowed? In many western countries, such utterances by a politician would end his political career. Crude words, when repeated often enough, tend to provoke violent actions by reckless people. Malema is a potential Mussolini-in-the-making, and dangerous.

The topic tends to become irrational. But confronting it is a necessary process in clarifying post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the reputed banning of the children’s novel Black Beauty during apartheid because censors didn’t want the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ on the same page? Some scholars refute this, but whatever the case, the last thing we need now is to go back to that crazy mindset.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

 

Censorship: A double-edged sword

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THE clumsy attempt by the State Security Agency and SA Revenue Service to block printing and distribution of the book by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers, is nowhere near the censorship which prevailed during apartheid. But it eerily reminds us of how the slippery slope begins in that direction. A desperate President Jacob Zuma will go to any lengths to protect himself and his cronies from exposure for wrongdoing, as the book does, and possibly going to jail. He has turned the security establishment and SARS into his defensive tools.

Thankfully the country has constitutional safeguards against censorship, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary and a populace accustomed to freedom of expression earned by generations of struggle activists. For example, recent controversial artworks by Ayanda Mbuli depicting Zuma in lewd sexual poses with the Guptas, offended many, but it’s a tribute to the country that the works were never banned.

Predictably, Pauw’s book quickly gained a large global readership after government demanded its recall. It is now into a second printing. Local bookstores rejected the call to remove the book. Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk said: “I will censor a book that is blatantly racist, has hatred of Jews, hatred of black people or any other people. But a book like this, why should we refuse to sell it?”

Could the government have a case in demanding its recall? Do details about Zuma’s dodgy tax affairs violate his right to privacy? This is as much about politics as anything else. In a democracy, the government cannot suppress such facts about a public figure like the president, or censor someone’s opinion of him. It must take the matter to court, which would be a good thing, since then the beans about Zuma will definitely be publicly spilled.

Anyone who was politically aware during apartheid will remember the ideological absurdities of censorship. Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time which lauds kindness and respect, was apparently banned for using the word ‘black’ in the title, in conjunction with the word ‘beauty’. Burger’s Daughter by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, was banned for contradicting government’s racial policies by telling white anti-apartheid activists’ stories. In the sexual realm, the state’s defenders of ‘morality’ put Playboy magazine out of bounds, with its double-page spreads of naked women, but copies were smuggled into the country and passed from hand to hand.

Internationally, banning books with sinister ideological or religious themes sometimes has a more acceptable side. There have, for example, been many unsuccessful calls over the years for banning The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract which concocts a false Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, and was used as justification for Jewish persecution. And Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, was banned in Germany since the Second World War, but last year it became legal to publish and sell it as a commented edition.

South Africa’s political turmoil today, reflected in the many bizarre public statements and postures of its politicians, has an echo of the story in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, a parable extolling democracy while describing a workers’ revolution which goes horribly wrong. It’s about the successful overthrow of a harsh regime of human farmers by an animals’ liberation movement. The new order becomes corrupted, however, when leaders turn arrogant, and ‘alternative facts’ – the ‘fake news’ of today – are propagated to suit political ambitions. It sounds familiar, not unlike the tragic corruption of the once-admired ANC liberation movement.

Pauw’s book is not ideological in the traditional sense, except to the extent that law-breakers, whoever they are, should be exposed and punished, including the president if necessary. Zuma’s selfish motives in wanting the book recalled are so transparent, a child could see through them. But he doesn’t care; he knows he will probably never be called to account. Or could it be that the tide is finally turning against him?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )