Giving freedom the finger

Giving JZ the finger

In a recent interview, President Jacob Zuma expresses regret that, contrary to the urgings of Mandela for us to live in harmony, we have “not taken that discussion further”. But it is untrue that the discussion in question has become dormant. In the context of the divisive rhetoric emanating from some quarters of his party, as well as the incoherency of the moral leadership offered by Zuma himself, it can be argued that we have in fact taken that discussion further – further towards a rejection of the sorts of values implied by Mandela’s wish for us to live together in harmony.

Stable and lasting harmony is premised on a recognition and tolerance of opposing viewpoints, which of course requires the freedom for citizens to express their points of view – regardless of whether those views conform to those of any other citizen, or to the views of any political party. The starkest alternative to this – that of a society of repression and the stifling of dissenting views – is not at all in keeping with the values expressed in our Constitution.

While our general commitment to free speech does permit (rare) justifiable exceptions, it does not, and cannot, allow for the suppression of views simply because we find them uncomfortable to hear. And it is in this context that the case of UCT student Chumani Maxwele may end up setting a most unfortunate precedent, if it is not firmly dealt with in a manner which reinforces our right to criticise our political leaders.

The details of the case appear to be that on the evening of February 10, Mr. Maxwele was subjected to unlawful harassment and intimidation by members of Jacob Zuma’s security detail, after they allegedly spotted him giving the finger to the presidential convoy. According to Maxwele, men with guns pulled a bag over his head, and drove him to a police station where he was arrested for crimen injuria, interrogated as to his political views, and held overnight while his house and personal possessions were searched.

While a Constable at Mowbray Police Station has confirmed the charge of crimen injuria, little about this case is known for certain – Maxwele claims that he merely “waved the convoy away”, as they were making noise, while the commander of the arresting officers, Captain Sandisile Mafunda, said Maxwele “was showing gestures with his right-hand with his middle finger pointing up-right (sic) with the remaining fingers folded, uttering the remarks towards the President’s convoy saying ‘fuck you Zuma… you are disrupting traffic.”

In light of the existing attempts to soften the media impact of this story, as well as the spin that will certainly follow, it is important to remind ourselves of some crucial details. First, and most importantly, it is not illegal to be rude, and nor is it illegal to indicate dissent or displeasure with the ANC or the nation’s President.

Second, police spokesperson Zweli Mnisi’s claims that Maxwele had apologised (a claim later disputed by Maxwele) are utterly irrelevant to the wrongfulness of Maxwele’s arrest and harassment. Maxwele may have been rude, but we have no plausible evidence – from Maxwele or the police – of any illegal actions on the part of Maxwele. Whether or not Maxwele believes himself to have been in the wrong would also have no bearing on the wrongfulness of the actions of the police.

On the evidence available to us, it seems far more likely that it was the police who were engaging in illegal actions in their detention of Maxwele and the searching of his house. Unfortunately, in light of the absence of any apology for their actions, one cannot help but suspect that they were looking for evidence of something that could be retrospectively used to justify their abuse of power.

Third, the revelation of Maxwele’s criminal record by police is nothing if not a transparent, and embarrassing, attempt to save face by trying to present Maxwele in a negative light, thereby shifting public attention away from the apparently criminal actions of the police themselves.

The hypersensitivity to perceived criticism evidenced by this case is deeply troubling, as it demonstrates a lack of commitment to free speech, and to allowing dissent. Furthermore, the reactions of the police following the incident (with the exception of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who has asked the ICD to investigate the matter) are also troubling, in that no further comment has been offered in justification of the arrest itself, besides the admission that it was simply for insulting the President.

Most troubling of all, perhaps, is that we have had no comment from the Presidency itself, affirming a commitment to free speech, and apologising to Maxwele. The statement would ideally also include recognition of the fact that the police seem to have taken their personal commitment to the ruling party too far, given that their actual job has nothing to do with defending the interests of any particular political party, and that Maxwele’s political allegiances were irrelevant to the alleged criminality of his actions.

Moments like these provide an opportunity for President Zuma to demonstrate to South Africans – and to the world at large – that we are not simply another country in Africa, where stereotypes regarding thug rule, cronyism and a lack of respect for democratic processes come easily to mind. In the case of Maxwele, a statement condemning this sort of behaviour on the part of police would go a long way towards damage-limitation. But what we get is silence.

If Maxwele did in fact disrespect Zuma, our President should perhaps be reminded that respect is something that is earned, rather than a perk that comes with the job. And if he truly believes that “it’s time to talk about our moral code”, this belief would strike South Africans as far more plausible if he were to demonstrate a commitment to it in cases like these, by denouncing these erosions of Maxwele’s – and our – freedoms.

Versions of this piece were published in the Durban Mercury (22/02/10) and the Cape Times (23/02/10). This is the original text, as submitted to the newspapers.