THE WRITE OUTLOOK: In South Africa, freedom of speech does not mean freedom to be heard

South African university campuses in general have a strongly anti-Israel bias. The BDS activists have hijacked South Africa’s apartheid history and laid claim to it as their own.

September 3, 2015 22:02
2 minute read.
Kwara Kekana, BDS activist

Kwara Kekana, BDS activist . (photo credit: BDS SOUTH AFRICA)


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There is the danger that freedom of speech is fast becoming a question only of volume. And that those who scream loudest in the defense of this precious liberty, drown out those who are actually trying to say something. Which means very simply, that freedom of speech becomes a numbers game.

The examples are numerous and can be drawn from all arenas. University campuses, the media and parliament are the main flash points and it is worth taking a brief look at these in order to try and appreciate the complexities.

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South African university campuses in general have a strongly anti-Israel bias. The BDS activists have hijacked South Africa’s apartheid history and laid claim to it as their own. The schools have become ground zero for Israel Apartheid Week, which is a weeklong anti-Semitic festival, now skillfully incorporated into the academic year.

Wits University in Johannesburg, in its defense, has tried to create some balance and to allow representation and debate on both sides in the spirit of academic freedom, but given the demographics this is hardly possible.

Very simply, no Israeli and no one supporting Israel is easily able to get a word in edgewise. No Israeli musician is able to perform unchallenged and no viewpoint, other than that of the BDS movement, is given freedom of expression. Anyone with a view alternative to the Israel- Apartheid narrative is drowned out, bullied and intimidated into silence, which is ironic, considering that one of the major criticisms of the former Apartheid government was its control of this vital right.

Contrast that to the contrived incident where the head of BDS South Africa was removed from a gym for wearing an “Israel is Apartheid” T-Shirt, after having been asked politely by the Muslim manager numerous times to not be provocative. He so happened (pure coincidentally, he insists) to have been with a journalist who successfully made this into a public incident that outraged every media outlet in the country. Freedom of expression was being challenged, and it was the Jewish Zionists who were doing so. (In any event, it has long been suspected that we control the press.) And the entire country nodded in agreement.

The South African Parliament is no different. With everyone screaming that it’s their right to speak, it is impossible to hear anything but the loudest and the most numerous.

The relatively new Economic Freedom Fighters party under Julius Malema is particularly guilty of shouting down speakers, but the more mature African National Congress more so of trying to control expression in parliament.

Very often sessions end in chaos and the bewildered public is left dumbfounded and confused. Constitutional rights might have been protected, but they have not been realized.

As the young South African democracy struggles through its dangerous adolescence, as it oscillates between being a screaming rambunctious youth and a more mature citizen of the world, South Africa, its politicians and its citizens battle to find the balance. And without accepting that the necessary partner to the right to express one’s opinions is the obligation to allow others to do the same, there is little hope that this will ever be achieved. Only when it becomes less about volume and more about respect for all viewpoints will South Africa become a real democracy.

The writer is the author of Carry On Baggage. He is a commodity trader, daily radio talk show host and public speaker.

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