Sara Gon on the latest threat to free expression in South Africa
For nearly 90 years, the Institute of Race Relations has stood for classical liberalism, which encompasses eight fundamental tenets. One of these is ‘Free thought and speech’, of which we argue:
There should be no limits on what you are allowed to say or think except where such ideas threaten physical harm against another person.
It is dangerous that South Africa has imported from Europe and America a culture that seeks to protect people from things they don’t like to hear through creating ‘safe spaces’ and savaging any person who holds an opinion that is not seen as politically correct.
Political correctness is strangling our society and risks a tyranny of the minority where a small group of politicians, activists and journalists get to decide what you are allowed to say or think.
We advocate against all threats to freedom of speech and all attempts to force ‘group-think’ in business, academia, the media, civil society, and politics.”
The recent emphasis has been on the erosion of freedoms by the state – expropriation without compensation and the National Health Insurance Bill are but two examples. In the IRR’s view, these measures will harm South Africa while not guaranteeing positive results for those they purport to help.
The creeping loss of freedom is growing as a result of the conduct of non-state actors, too, and art reflects it graphically. The test of a free and democratic society is the freedom artists have to express themselves.
Apartheid has always been our odious reference point for the banning and destruction of art, as well as the imprisonment of artists. Artists were instrumental in reflecting the struggle against oppression.
The strangling of artistic expression was also starkly illustrated in the Soviet Union, something which began very soon after the October Revolution in 1917.
By1932, Joseph Stalin had proclaimed that all artists must embrace Socialist Realism as a philosophy and a style. This encompassed loyalty to the Communist Party, and the ‘correct’ ideological stance and content. Those who did not conform could be interrogated, imprisoned and even executed.
The underlying doctrine was that the arts must serve society by educating and inspiring the masses.Artists were instructed to produceart that was optimistic, heroic, and made visible the spirit of socialism. It required strict adherence to party doctrine and to conventional techniques of realism. Artists were required to become Party members.
Art had to represent an idealistic world of fantasy, whichignoredcommunism’s horrors.
The growth of the movement of the progressive left, having its origins on American university campuses, is starting to create a chilling effect on artistic and cultural freedom. Social justice activism allows those who most aggressively and shrilly impose the politics of victimhood on our society to become the self-appointed censors of art.
The most insidious result is self-censorship. Two examples, one from Britain and one from South Africa, are telling.
The Financial Times is one of the most venerable daily newspapers in the world. It was founded in 1888 with special emphasis on business and economics.
A perturbing phenomenon has become apparent in the FT and FT Weekend. Whenever it prints a photograph of a naked figure – of say, a classical statue promoting an auction of antique art, or a photograph of members of a semi-naked African tribe – the FT covers the ‘offending bits’ with little grey squares.
Millennia of the glories of art – from ancient Greece and the Renaissance to Impressionism – are being censored in the 21st century. Paintings of ballet dancers, glass statuettes and Rodin statues are all subject to a prudery that even the Victorians would have considered extreme. A glorious tradition of art is being stifled.
The reason, apparently, though unverified, is that the FT is responding to the distaste expressed by some of the FT’s Muslim subscribers.
At home, we look to the University of Cape Town’s prostrating itself to the fascism and ignorance of the ‘woke’ generation.
UCT removed art works from its buildings that hadn’t already been destroyed by rampaging ‘protesters’ in 2016, and established an Artworks Task Team to decide what was to be displayed and what not. Stalin would have been proud.
The accusations of continued censorship under the pressure of the mob have not abated. Approximately seventy-five items that have been affected include works by the late David Goldblatt, Breyten Breytenbach, Willie Bester, Richard Baholo, Robert Broadley, Steven Cohen, Vusi Khumalo, Joshua Reynolds, Lucky Sibiya, Irma Stern, Andrew Tshabangu and Sue Williamson.
This list is by no means official. It was recorded in an article in Ground Up (This is probably the list of artworks UCT has removed Natalie Pertsovsky 25 April, 2018),which noted: “Following a long deliberation process, the Artworks Task Team (ATT) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) published a report in February that indicates the pieces of art removed and covered up in the past year will remain off the walls indefinitely.”
David Goldblatt, one of South Africa’s truly internationally recognised artists, was so enraged by UCT’s actions that he bequeathed his entire collection to Yale University.
William Daniels, formerly of the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library, has constantly been fighting UCT’s management to desist from such censorship.
Most recently. Daniels (When banning things was bad, Politicsweb 19 September) ‘congratulates’ UCT Libraries for ‘daring to mount an exhibition of materials that were banned under apartheid, even as the censorship of art continues within its own walls’.
Daniels goes further:
“As you know, Breyten Breytenbach's painting Hovering Dog, among others, was removed from the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library, and Mikhael Subotzky's award-winning Pollsmoor photographs were removed from the Law Library. Just steps from the library's entrance, Diane Victor's drawing Pasiphaë, which had been boarded up for several years, was recently removed, without explanation.
And, after being covered up with cloth for overthree years, Willie Bester's sculpture Sarah Baartman has also now been removed from the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library, with no word as to whether it will ever be returned to permanent display after its brief forthcoming exhibition at the Ritchie Gallery. Dozens of paintings, photographs, drawings, and sculptures have likewise been removed from other buildings on campus.”
Daniels accuses the UCT Libraries of ‘failing to uphold the artists' rights, and only issuing a statement on the suppression of artworks at UCT in August 2018.
“In order for the Libraries' Banned Books Exhibition to have any credibility, and for it to remain free of a staggering degree of hypocrisy, it must present an honest account of the ongoing censorship of art inside the Libraries and elsewhere in the University by including images of all of the suppressed (and recently destroyed) works of art (a list of them is available here), and by posting the "Statement by LIASA on University of Cape Town Censorship" as well as Gwenda Thomas's statement on the censorship of Willie Bester's Sarah Baartmanthat she wanted to be made public.”
The Spear and Jacob Zuma’s spats with Zapiro were at least public.
Now we’re witnessing a steady and silent attack on the Consitutional right to expression. The mob is becoming society’s arts critic.
Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.