Flemming Rose: No, UCT was wrong

Jeff Rudin responds to Mervyn Bennun's defence of the university management

Flemming Rose: UCT was wrong

Mervyn Bennun’s OpEd, ‘Flemming Rose: UCT was right’, is powerfully written, but with problematic arguments.  

In saying this, I’m not suggesting that Max Price and the UCT authorities had easy options. My concern is rather that they took the easiest option. And, as is so often the case, short-term solutions come with much bigger, long term dangers.

This conclusion is based on the following points:

Bennun’s narrow and somewhat legalistic focus on Flemming Rose is, in my view, a mistake, for it isolates what happened in Denmark from both subsequent events in France and from my different understanding of what is currently happening in South Africa. This is to say, the banning of Rose needs to be seen in a bigger political context than Bennun seems to have allowed.

The murder of the Charlie Hebdo French journalists, for doing no more than daring to depict Mohammed, strongly suggests that what is involved is much greater than Moslem offence at a cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. (This stands even if one were to allow the interpretation Bennun gives to that offensive cartoon.)

Rather than seeing the issue as one of free speech – the right to be offensive – it is more politically pertinent to protect the greatly more vulnerable space for dissidence – for the right to promote – politely – a radical transformation of the status quo

Even if this difference between free speech and dissidence is not allowed – or is given less weight than I attach to it – the operative word is ‘offence’. If what one says – regardless of the form it takes – offends no one, one might well ask whether one should have bothered opening one’s mouth.

Moreover, even though, in my view, offence doesn’t depend on the number being offended, the fact that only some of a group take offence is not unimportant. Max Price’s banning of the Dane becomes all the more significant because, as he explained, his concern was that a small group of Moslems would have disrupted the meeting, if it had gone ahead

This concern about the reactions of ‘some’ students is already becoming a disturbing trend. Just think, for instance, of the supposedly ‘white’ or ‘colonial’ paintings and photographs that were removed by UCT, lest some students considered them offensive

This brings me to the alarming growth of intolerance that marks South Africa today, an assault on difference that Bennun seems to discount. Students – or, rather those who are so ready to be offended – are in the vanguard of policing what is now to be considered acceptable.

I was fortunate to be in the audience of last year’s TB Davie lecture by Kenan Malik (the lecture Flemming Rose was to have delivered this year). Malik reminded us then that

The university is a space for would-be adults to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge, to interrogate power, to learn how to make an argument; a space within which students can be challenged, even upset or shocked or made angry… To be at a university is to accept the challenge of exploring one’s own beliefs and responding to disagreement.”

Of course, there are limits to what can be said. Calls for immediate violence, to say nothing of murder, cannot expect the protection of the law.

This is where the South African political context becomes particularly relevant. Acting with decidedly unusual speed and vigour, the Human Right Commission imposed a R150,000 fine on a person who, on Facebook, called black Xmas beach-goers ‘monkeys’.

Yet nothing has (yet) happened to the person who, at the same time as the outrage over monkeys, recommended that, learning from what Hitler did to Jews, all whites should be killed. A few days ago, a would-be EFF Councillor, proclaimed that ‘ALL WHITES MUST BE HACKED AND KILLED’. Apart from the Electoral Court removing his candidature in the imminent Local Government election, we shouldn't be surprised if nothing further happens to this avowed racist of murderous intent.

The political importance of this tolerance of some racists, while others are spared no mercy needs emphasising. This is because the politically powerful are increasingly using ‘race’ to shut down any criticism of themselves; criticism, moreover, that is far removed from what I’ve called the dissidence that questions the status quo.

Let one telling example suffice: Last year, Diana Kohler Barnard, a senior member of the DA Parliamentary caucus – hardly a revolutionary vanguard – forwarded a Facebook posting about how the Hawks were being used for political purposes. This hardly original or contentious critique of the Hawks was followed by a hardly original or contentious comment that services had been better under the apartheid government. Upon the discovery of this posting, and because the MP was ‘white’, the ANC’s Minister of Sport, screamed: RACISM!

This one word was sufficient for a subsequent DA Disciplinary Committee to recommend the following punishments: a fine of R20,000, removal from all internally elected DA positions, payment for public apologies in 5 newspapers and attending a social media management course at her own expense.  The DA, however, considered these punishments to be far too lenient and therefore expelled her. She successfully appealed and now faces ‘only’ a suspension from the DA of 5 years.

UCT’s banning of Flemming Rose adds to the new normality of restricting what is now considered to be acceptable political space.

To be sure, Max Price’s banning of someone invited by the UCT to give the annual lecture on academic freedom feeds into this highly selected intolerance of racism. Be assured Zionists will use this precedent to claim intolerable offence of anything that might be critical of Israel. And, of course, Zionists will not be alone in applauding Max Price. He has, perhaps unwittingly, made it that much easier for others to reduce even further the space for difference, to say nothing of more challenging dissidence.

A foretaste of what can be expected when dissidence is involved was provided during the AMCU platinum strike of 2014. The ANC’s General Secretary was quick to blame the strike on ‘2 foreign whites’. That one of these trouble-making foreigners was said to be the ‘Canadian’ Brian Ashley, adds to the chill because it highlights the incompetence of the secret police (for Ashley is as South African as the General Secretary himself).

 In conclusion, it is encouraging to be able to quote from the ruling of the Judge who recently heard the application by four of the dismissed SABC journalists. The Judge, quoting from the Complaints & Compliance Committee (CCC) of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), noted:

South Africa is not alone in its recognition of the right to freedom of expression and its importance to a democratic society. … The right is protected in almost every international human rights instrument. … The European Court of Human Rights has pointed out that the right to freedom of expression is: “Applicable not to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society”