“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” So said Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906 in The Friends of Voltaire. But in the topsy-turvy world in which we live this sentiment has become out-dated, out-moded. And certainly as of 20th June in South Africa it is no more.
For on that day Shashi Naidoo, a prominent young South African sat at a press conference apologizing for a recent social media post, and expressing her ardent desire to change and learn. Yes, this did concern the Israel/Palestine conflict and yes, Shashi’s posting was pro-Israel and anti-Hamas. And that in South Africa is an unpopular stance to adopt.
But quite honestly the content of her post is irrelevant. What is relevant and what no-one gets, what no-one understands, from the man-in-the-street, to journalists and talk-show hosts is that the issue at stake here was not Shashi’s opinion but rather that hallowed value that we as South Africans so cherish – freedom of expression. Chapter 2 of our constitution, paragraph 16(1) reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. It follows on paragraph 15(1) where it is stated that “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.”
And within minutes of Shashi’s post appearing she was denied her right to think freely, to have an opinion of her own and to express that opinion. Death threats ensued as did horrific comments and the withdrawal of many of her business sponsors. Yesterday, we watched, as caught up in the tentacles of those who abhor any form of freedom of expression, unless that expression tows the party line, she gave all the right answers.
But for me, the questions asked her at the press conference were as disturbing as the fact that she was being curtailed from having an opinion. Not one journalist thought (or were they too afraid) to suggest that her freedom of thought and expression was being infringed upon. Not one journalist found it strange that within 24 hours such an about-turn could occur, and not one journalist saw this as an ominous foreboding of our future as free-thinking South Africans.
On Radio 702, the talk-show host, Azania Mosaka, commented, when it was suggested to her by a listener that this was an infringement of free speech, that free speech must also be responsible. And so we understand that ‘responsible’ for her implies that which is acceptable, that which is popular? But this negates the concept, enshrined in our constitution, of freedom to an opinion.
George Orwell once said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Four days ago South Africans heard something they did not want to hear. They answered loudly and clearly and with their answer, we all lost our liberty.