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Freedom of speech and food for thought

Something that has struck me about South Africa is the fact that although many can argue there are a lot of problems affecting citizens (like heavy crime, poverty and corruption – to name a few), there is one thing that South Africa displays in a manner that not a lot of European countries can credit themselves for. And that is the freedom of speech and moreover, the way in which this freedom of speech is expressed.

One would assume that a government ruled by the majority party ANC and a president that too often is linked to controversy and even corruption would lead to a situation where freedom of speech and opinion would be somewhat limited. I can easily point to Italy’s Berlusconi as an example and you’ll understand why I would assume this. I can just as easily point to Russia’s Putin and you’ll definitely get the picture. After all, it is only “logical” that criticism threatens the ones in power and that those will want to keep that power. In the end, everything revolves around power. As I met a Muslim man today who worked at the District Six Museum reminded me. The District Six Museum is a a museum about a specific district in Cape Town that was transformed by the Apartheid government to a “white” area and therefore lead to the forced removal of the people living there to nearby so-called townships. He stated that Zuma keeps on promising all sort of things, while nothing ever happens. However, when do we get to hear these promises? Right before the elections. Sounds familiar?

As I have stated in my previous blog post – South Africa’s democracy is a limping one and far from perfect. But it has something crucial and valuable and that is the freedom of speech, which we all know is one of the basic human liberties. I am not stating that European countries don’t have freedom of speech – of course we do and luckily so. But I want to emphasize the way this liberty is expressed in South Africa and how it struck to me as different from ours.

How did I come to this observation? For starters, I am following online South African newspapers and there is one in particular (Mail & Guardian) which posts opinion articles and satirical cartoons (created by the artist Zapiro) on a daily basis. I also follow a Facebook page specifically devoted to political cartoons (Africartoons). I will add a few examples of these below. For some time now, I have been enjoying reading these articles and the cartoons in particular. These cartoons don’t just synthesize the latest political event or news headline using mediocre humor. (No offence, Belgium). No, these cartoons are highly critical, satirical and capture the harsh reality of things. They don’t shy away from highly criticizing (for example) Zuma and his ways. I would even argue that they are straight out insulting to the president (as well as others). These cartoons are highly representative of the feelings and political sensitivities of the South Africans (this quickly becomes clear when reading online comments) and most importantly, brutally honest. I can’t help but think that these kinds of cartoons are not published in Belgian newspapers or that they would cause controversy, if published. Of course, one could argue that things in Belgium just aren’t as bad but I would dispute that. Take a look at the online comments for a Belgian newspaper and you will see that Belgians have very similar sentiments about politics and therefore there is a enormous pool of inspirations for critical cartoons.

My thoughts on this were reinforced when I watched ‘The Big Debate on Racism’ on YouTube, where several South African opinion leaders were invited to discuss the success/failure of the Rainbow nation. Not only was this discussion very interesting and capturing of the racial issues alive in South Africa today, it also showed me that South Africans are far more comfortable talking about racism and discrimination than we are. For me, this seemed contradictory. Here are people coming from years and years of violence and inequality, both very much in correlation with racism, that are now openly and honestly are discussing these issues without much inhibitions. Whereas we Belgians do not come from such a atrocious part and we hardly dare to say anything,   in fears of it being considered highly offensive. Granted, the conversation did get heated at one point but this was only between two people and everyone else was tolerant and respectful of others’ opinions throughout the entire debate. To give just one example, South Africans constantly talk about “whites”, “blacks” and “coloured”. Even though I know this is the norm here, I feel uncomfortable every time I say – or even think – in terms of these categories. In Belgium even more so, I have no clue on what others consider the “politically correct” terms. I feel that we  are very much aware of the words we use and that we want to avoid stepping on each other’s toes – at all costs (even if harsh criticism is in place).  This debate showed me that even though racism is still a hugely sensitive topic in South Africa (and it will take generations to get over that) – it is debatable. And that debate is open and honest. At least from the perspective I look at it. That debate shows few inhibitions and people dare to speak their mind.  They dare to point out the faults and weaknesses of others, themselves and even their political leaders. Which is crucial in bringing this nation forward and achieving reconciliation.

In conclusion, I applaud the South Africans for daring to speak their minds and opinions in such a manner that it is respectful, tolerant but also brutally honest. They call a spade a spade – Apartheid was about racism and a lot of economical and social inequalities still today are linked to racism. I could elaborate and stretch this point further and talk about the prevalence of protests in South Africa but this blog posting is already quite long so I will leave it at that for now.


Zapiro cartoons (Mail & Guardian)


The Big Debate on Racism


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