articles from 1993

The Urge to Suppress Persists in South Africa

– Bill Keller, The New York Times, 1 August 1993

JOHANNESBURG — IT is more than three years since the words of Nelson Mandela were unbanned in South Africa, and 10 years since the censors legalized "Tropic of Capricorn" and "Portnoy's Complaint." At talks on building democracy, all the major parties have included free speech in their proposals for a new bill of rights. Freedom is so much in fashion that even the former state censor now presents himself as a born-again champion of artistic and political liberty.But two events in recent days have aroused debate about whether the temptation to suppress is really dead or merely dormant, waiting to be called up in service of different sensibilities.

One was the forced cancellation of the showing of a Nazi-era German film, "Sweet Jew" ("Jud Suss"), to a conference exploring the limits of free expression.

The other was a proposal to ban public appearances or press statements by political figures deemed to be advocates of violence.

In each case the censorial voice was not that of the South African Government but of a public organization that regards itself as democratically inclined and politically progressive. The stated purpose was not to defend the state against the threat of change but to defend the country's uncompleted changes against the threat of violence.

South Africans have grown up under the censor's paternalism, in a world of whited-out newspapers, happy-talk TV, sex-free cinema and laundered literature. Since 1980 the old rules have been enforced less and less, until today's censors mainly worry about prurience and blasphemy: whether to snip Sharon Stone's lesbian scene from "Basic Instinct" (no) or to permit bookstores to sell Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" (no).

Familiarity with the censor has bred contempt for the state, but not necessarily a tolerance of dissenting views.

Blacks, in particular, who have been most thoroughly denied the luxury of free expression, are most likely to view it with suspicion. One recent poll found, for example, that a majority of blacks do not believe white parties have a right to conduct election campaigns in black townships. Journalists are often harassed in townships, and some have been killed there.

"Black people have never owned presses here, so they have never had a reason to place great store in press freedom," said Pat Sidley, who campaigns against censorship and is a columnist for The Weekly Mail, which sponsored last week's film festival on the theme of censorship. "As a consequence, press freedom here has been the preserve of a few white liberals."

Albie Sachs, a human rights lawyer who helped draft a proposed bill of rights for the African National Congress, said the habit of state control is strong among whites, too. Afrikaners, for example, have long defended the conservative bias of state television as necessary to offset what they saw as a more liberal English domination of the newspapers.

"The argument here has always been that the state has to balance out the imbalances," Mr. Sachs said.

Even South Africans who say they abhor censorship tend to be wary of the kind of freedom embodied in the United States Constitution's First Amendment; they argue that too much license can be dangerous in a divided and changing society.

When The Weekly Mail chose to include "Sweet Jew," a famous work of anti-Semitic propaganda, in its censorship festival, a leading Jewish organization lobbied the German copyright holder to withdraw permission. Ironically, said The Weekly Mail's Stephen Laufer, the sponsors had selected the film because it is so skillfully insidious that "it makes a strong case for some kind of restrictions."

The opponents, who had not seen the film, argued that its imagery was reputed to be so powerful that even liberal intellectuals watching it as part of an educational program might emerge filled with anti-Jewish emotions.

"This is a time of tremendous political and economic upheaval," said Joycelyn Hellig, a professor of religious studies and a member of the Jewish Board of Deputies, the organization that blocked the film. "It's not an ideal time to be exploring in a leisurely way whether a particular group should be targeted for hatred."

The conviction that words can kill also underlies a proposal being considered by the National Peace Committee, a multiparty forum that is supposed to help curb the country's daily slaughter. The proposal, aimed at giving the often feckless committee some teeth, is to set up a tribunal with power to ban public speech by anyone caught inciting violence. A Familiar Idea

"It's not a gag on the press," said Antonie Gildenhuys, the committee official who broached the idea. "It's a gag on a particular individual who has been found guilty of war talk or another offense. He may then not appear on a public platform or issue statements to the press. If he ignores the order he could be charged in the criminal courts."

Mr. Sachs of the African National Congress, who was banned for much of his life because of his anti-apartheid views, said he found the idea chillingly familiar. And he said he would probably have allowed the anti-Semitic film to be shown, at least as part of an educational conference.

But the African National Congress, like most other parties here, does favor laws against promoting race hatred. Mr. Sachs said the congress would ban speech with a "direct potential" to incite violence.

When apartheid was at its most censorious, the playwright Pieter-Dirk Uys outwitted the official spoilsports by dressing in drag and impersonating them on stage. There was a barb in the joke last week when he ended a panel discussion with a promise that he would "see you all at the next anti-censorship conference in 10 years' time."

"I don't think we'll ever get something as entertaining or absurd as we had in the past," he said later, wistfully. "But we could get a situation where people are too scared to have opinions, or to express them. I think everybody's being extremely sensitive about our freedoms at the moment because it's the thing to do. But when power is in one's hands, the fist will close."