(This article was first published in The Star newspaper, Johannesburg on September 20, 2007)
By Mukoni Ratshitanga
A high school incident in the early 1990s has remained frozen in my mind. A history teacher invited an archaeologist to lecture on one of South Africa’s pre-colonial polities. The lecture included photographs of human skeletons which the archaeologist and his team had dug up from graves.
A student asked: “What gives you the right to dig up graves?” The history teacher and the archaeologist were visibly unimpressed – the latter responded that the excavations serviced knowledge accumulation.
The teacher concurred, citing familiar refrains of difficulties in authenticating African history due to its reliance on the oral word. Unmoved, the student declared that his cultural purview forbade the digging of graves.
Whatever qualifications the student may make today about what may or may not constitute appropriate conduct in the pursuit of knowledge, that incident sharply illustrated the influence of socialisation in our assessment of professional conduct.
Some of the commentary greeting the SABC withdrawal from the South African National Editor’s Forum reminds me of that incident.
Is it a case, as some argue, of unimpeachably good exponents of freedom of expression versus guilty-beyond-doubt agents of the governing party intent on stifling free speech? Or is there something of deeper significance at play?
Let us consider the views of SABC group chief executive officer Dali Mpofu and commentator Max du Preez.
Mpofu expressed grave concern about young journalists who refer to Minister of Health Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang by her first name. He views this as conflicting with African norms and values.
Du Preez finds this “laugh[able] and comical”. He sees the SABC’s decision as part of a “concerted campaign to prepare the ground for attempts to limit media freedom”.
The communities from which Mpofu and Du Preez come require that criticism of elders and elected representatives should be expressed in forceful, but respectful, terms.
This is illustrated in the Tshivenda proverb: Thoho thema i laya thoho tshena – a black head is also capable of counselling a grey head.
Some of Du Preez’s previous writings are in fact permeated with the respect that Mpofu demands of journalists. In 2001 he published an unauthorised biography of the information scandal and rugby personality, Louis Luyt.
Du Preez set out to write “an honest book” – not “a hatchet job on Louis Luyt”. He confessed to coming across “quite a few stories about Luyt’s personal life” which he “decided not to include”. Du Preez “asked every person I talked to who bad-mouthed Luyt if they had anything positive to say about him”.
Such was his commitment to humanise, not demonise, Luyt that Du Preez’s message to his subject matter was: “you never bored me in the months I spent researching your life. You have done some remarkable things in your life. And I’m not sure I would have been able to say that about many other personalities in South African public life.”
Why, then, are people like Luyt spared the inhumane ridicule meted out to people like Tshabalala-Msimang?
The African value system espoused by Mpofu and illustrated in Du Preez’s appraisal of Luyt considers the manner of engagement to provide for interaction. Thus, one does not say of an elderly person that they are lying. One rather has to illuminate the truth as they see it.
It is not so much a question of the bounds of the expressible as it is one about the manner of engagement in the same way that one’s rights are not without limitations.
Many African languages attach prefixes indicative of seniority before a person’s name. The prefix “Vho,” in Tshivenda accords both respect and signifies adulthood. Reference to an elderly person by their first name is widely considered disrespectful and deserving serious censure in African society. Incidentally, equivalent to the use of such a prefix is “U” in Afrikaans.
Although a young adult may qualify to be awarded the title “Vho,” they would not expect such an honour from an elderly person. This value system also teaches that young people voluntarily recuse themselves when elders discuss sensitive issues.
As we would concede is his right, Du Preez asserts that we would be in danger of sacrificing freedom of speech and, by extension, freedom of the media, were we to heed Mpofu.
Yet no value or right exists in isolation from all others. Nor is it an antagonistic end in itself but as a vital ingredient of human dignity and of our respect for each other. It may even at times be in conflict with others.
What values, freedoms and rights did we fight for and what place should they occupy in society? Who may interrogate whom, in conditions set by whom, in what language(s)?
What does the fact that the majority of South Africans, black and white, are raised within a value system to some varying extent articulated by Mpofu mean for its relevance in public discourse?
And what of the necessary task to examine the value system that our media and cultural institutions take for granted, profess to espouse, suppress, expose, insinuate or eradicate?
Or are African values merely “laughable and comical”, anachronistic dreams which are better forgotten in favour of what some would have us take as universal values?
It might be useful to view Mpofu and Du Preez’s collision in terms of the objective outcome of different processes of socialisation than a fight for or against free speech.
The centre of our moral universe, which must be vigorously asserted, as do all peoples assert theirs, is African. And like all cultures, we evolve and borrow, but Africa is and must be our starting point.
Mukoni Ratshitanga is President Thabo Mbeki’s spokesperson. He writes here in his personal capacity.