SOUTH African cartoonists are fond of portraying the national economy perched on the edge of a cliff. It’s an appropriate image, but there are other cliffs around, one of them involving our constitutional right to freedom of expression. Many forms of censorship were fundamental to apartheid, so the achievement of individual and media freedom was much celebrated in the mid-1990s. Constitutionally, nothing has changed in the last twenty years. But South Africa is a country increasingly in the grip of self-censorship.

Evidence of this emerges from surprising places. A financial advisor working for one of the big banks told me recently that he and colleagues now pass no opinion whatsoever via electronic media. This followed a communication from economist Chris Hart in January when he made critical comments about the use of victimhood for economic leverage. This was controversial, but an opinion to which he was fully entitled. His suspension by Standard Bank happened during a wave of hysteria following a clearly racist statement broadcast by a now notorious Durban estate agent Penny Sparrow who likened black beachgoers to monkeys. Gareth Cliff was then removed from ‘Idols’ for saying that he did not think Sparrow’s words were racist. Going to court with none other than advocate Dali Mpofu of the Economic Freedom Fighters as his representative, Cliff was duly and correctly reinstated. Sparrow has not been prosecuted as she should have been, but that is clearly not the intention.

It suits the crumbling ANC and various African ethnic nationalists to claim a pervasive atmosphere of increasing racism. An air of perpetual crisis is ripe for exploitation. In particular, opinion can readily be confused with clearly unacceptable racist statements and one’s opponents rendered silent. Matters reached a dangerously absurd level when a Cape Town building displaying a large ‘#Zuma must fall’ banner, which in all likelihood infringed municipal regulations, was stormed by a mob that removed the poster and threatened to torch the place. Subsequent social media comment suggested that any criticism of Zuma was by definition racist. Other postings have incited violence against whites, including one by a Gauteng public servant, Velaphi Khumalo, which called for a repeat of the Holocaust, without any serious repercussion.

There are serviceable laws on the statute book to deal with racist words and actions. But it suits those playing the race card not to prosecute: the scale of successful prosecutions would prove that the problem is not that great. The claim of widespread racism, felt rather than proven, provides licence to shut down discourse and narrow the parameters of expression. This is particularly significant in an election year in which the majority party is badly fractured, bereft of ideas and losing urban support. Real racists escape scot-free while citizens expressing opinions to which they are constitutionally entitled are eventually stigmatised into silence.

In the apartheid era government shaped the censorship system through legislation and policy. While pervasive and draconian it invited, and was met by, significant defiance. Civil society defended the defiers and they were recognised as part of the struggle. Today’s situation is far more dangerous. There are few laws that threaten freedom of speech. But there is a myriad of political and social pressures that inhibit public debate. The fight against censorship was a struggle for constitutionalism and the rule of law against totalitarians. The growing level of self-censorship indicates the power of unscrupulous, thuggish and powerful elements in society to reverse fundamental rights and curtail discourse.

In the most bizarre development of all, it has been proposed in the House of Assembly by an ANC MP, Jabulani Mahlangu, that a National Register of Racist Offenders (NRRO) be set up to help the authorities, and presumably others, circumscribe the lives of named offenders. The actual purpose of this blacklist seems contradictory: to prevent those listed obtaining visas and work permits for other countries when presumably we should be glad to see them leave this one. In a classic case of South African déjà vu this is all too reminiscent of the schedules of banned and listed persons that used to appear with depressing regularity in the Government Gazette during the apartheid years. The names of Sparrow, Hart and Cliff were suggested for inclusion in the NRRO, but on what basis? None of them has been convicted of anything and the chances in the cases of Cliff and Hart are precisely zero. This concept is a blatant attack on the rule of law and a reversion to administrative sanction: welcome, once more, to the world of bureaucratic totalitarianism.

As the position of Jacob Zuma weakens by the day and the ANC’s popularity suffers accordingly, so impatience with the Constitution and the rule of law increases in a wave of populism and majoritarianism. The niceties of democracy were fine as long as the ANC flourished. But now that the Zupta faction in the ANC, the state within a state whose ambition is to seize the Treasury, is being exposed the nation’s politics is being divided between those defending South Africa’s constitution and economic integrity; and those who are plainly out to loot for personal and collective gain. In this sense the cliff edge positions of both the national economy and freedom of expression are no coincidence.

The space for robust public debate is narrowing as powerful forces in society identify a need to defend their positions and actions by suppressing alternative views. There is growing evidence that Zuma, never mind charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering that already hang over him, could be impeached for treason. In this knowledge every effort will be made to shut down debate, inhibit the free flow of information, smear those defending the national interest and use diversionary tactics like accusations of racism to deflect attention. We are evidently in an era of fear and intimidation designed to induce orthodox thought.

It’s an object lesson in the need to look at bigger pictures rather than becoming lost in the minutiae of specific events.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 42, 24 March 2016