IT was the week that the theatre of the absurd played itself out on television screens across the country.
In the dock sat the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema. He was being questioned, goaded and baited by an assortment of angry men with a palpably poor grasp of South African history.
They wished to prove to the court that Malema had intended to incite violence by singing a traditional struggle song including the line “shoot the boer”.
They must have imagined they would have it easy. A few pokes of the stick and Malema would lose it, breathing fire at the judge, the judiciary, the courts and their clients.
They were wrong. There is the Malema of the mass gathering — the populist who knows how to stoke up the fires of anger — and then there is the cunning politician, who calculates, charms and expresses himself with candour and seriousness.
Much to the horror of the counsel for Afriforum — the organisation bringing a charge of hate speech against Malema — it was the charmer who sat in the dock.
Malema would not be goaded. He adopted a sympathetic, slightly patronising attitude as he explained to his interrogators the history and meaning of the ANC’s songs.
As a court case, it sucked. As a reality television show, it gripped the nation.
It might have been given the title: “Can You Keep It In: The show where people you loathe try to get you to lose your cool.”
Beyond the farce of the television experience were more layers of absurdity.
There was the absurdity of someone having to justify the singing of a song before a court of law in a country where freedom supposedly reigned.
There the was the absurdity of Malema and the ANC’s leadership — advocates of statutory controls over the media and the “protection” of government information — now offering po-faced arguments for the unfettered freedom of expression because, they argued, the nation was mature enough to handle it.
What is clear is that somewhere along the path to freedom, this nation has taken a wrong turn.
Julius Malema has made statements that are outrageous and hurtful. He showed poor political judgment by singing the “Shoot the boer” lyrics at a time when there were so many farm killings.
He has been widely criticised for doing so — even by the ANC.
But making the singing of a song a matter of law is a grave mistake. It opens the door for the courts to scrutinise and rule on the acceptability of public utterances.
Today it will be “Shoot the boer”, tomorrow it will be commenting that “the minister is a corrupt, idiotic buffoon”.
In an open society, matters of public taste belong in the court of public opinion.
The developing culture of regulation and litigation will suffocate free expression with ghastly costs in the long term.
We will become a society where what can or cannot be said is decided by who has the most lawyers and the most money. We don’t want to go there.
*this is a draft leader for the Sunday Times
THE killing of a man linked by police with a service delivery protest in Ficksburg has shocked the nation.
Andries Tatane was shot and beaten to death in full view of an SABC television crew. Video footage of the killing was broadcast on the SABC’s prime time news bulletin.
The incident has drawn widespread condemnation, including a strongly worded statement by the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu.
He said the incident could only be described “as resembling apartheid era police strong arm tactics, showing total disregard for human rights enshrined in the South African Constitution.”
It was a statement which is deserving of close examination.
Mthembu was juxtaposing the actions of the police with the protection of human rights contained in the constitution.
This is a long overdue repudiation of those in government and the police who appear to regard the constitution as an obstacle to effective policing.
This camp has held sway in government’s security cluster under the government of President Jacob Zuma.
One of their first acts was to re-militarise the police service, which they renamed the “police force”.
Ranks were dished out and commissioner Bheki Cele awarded himself the rank of “General” — Muammar Gaddafi was happy to settle for the lower rank of Colonel — and proceeded to stoke up within the police force the notion that they were to use their weapons more freely.
At the time, the move drew strong criticism from the ANC’s Kader Asmal, who wrote a letter to the Sunday Times in which he asked: “Has the Cabinet taken leave of its senses?”
Asmal went on: “I have news for them. If they want to travel along the road where law enforcement is perceived as the enemy of the people, they will have to deal with the Constitution. Under section 205, the police are described as a service (my emphasis) and under subsection (3), they are enjoined to uphold and enforce the law, which would involve strict adherence to the Constitution.”
Asmal was ignored and the bodies began to pile up. Some of these bodies were those of “suspected criminals” shot dead at road blocks and the public committed the cardinal mistake of shrugging and looking the other way.
What the SABC’s broadcast did was remind this country of the terrible consequences of a police force which believes itself to be a law unto itself.
Mthembu’s statement went on to criticise the SABC for broadcasting the images, which was a pity.
Tatane’s tragic death has woken this nation up to the extent to which the values of the new South Africa have been eroded by careless policy making.
It is time to return to the values that make us great.
THE Judicial Service Commission faces a stark choice: It must act swiftly to re-establish its credibility or take a defiant stand that further erodes the the South African judiciary.
The commission, called into being by Chapter 8 of the Constitution, was designed to ensure the “independence, impartiality, dignity, accessibility and effectiveness” of the courts.
It is supposed to ensure that the best minds find their way to the bench by recommending appointments to the judiciary and that the behaviour of judges is above criticism.
The commission is made up of the country’s senior judge, attorneys and nominees from the ruling party and the opposition with the purpose of bringing about transparent, accountable management of the courts that is free of political bias.
It’s actions around Judge Hlophe suggested that it was drifting from this prescription.
That is putting it too politely. In fact, the Hlophe hearings were a low point for the JSC. They demonstrated that political influence could be brought to bear when it came to evaluating the conduct of judges.
It is worth recalling what Hlophe had been accused of doing.
He had visited two Constitutional Court judges, Judge Bess Nkabinde and Acting Judge Chris Jafta, in their chambers in an effort to influence them on a matter before the land’s highest court. The matter involved none other than President Jacob Zuma.
Zuma — through his lawyer, Michael Hulley — and the arms manufacturer, Thint, wanted documents seized during raids on their premises declared inadmissible as evidence. At the time, Zuma faced prosecution for his role in bribes related to the arms deal.
Hlophe had, according to Jafta, claimed that Zuma was being persecuted. His pay-off line to the judge was: “You are our last hope.”
In a ruling which shocked the legal profession and the public, the JSC, after hearings held in camera, bought Hlophe’s patently false claim that he was simply having a friendly discussion with colleagues.
No formal inquiry was needed, said the body charged with maintaining the “dignity” of the courts.
It’s words were: “The Commission, by a majority, came to the following conclusions: that the evidence in respect of the complaint does not justify a finding that Hlophe JP is guilty of gross misconduct and should accordingly be removed from office …”
It was a decision which paved the way for a loosening of the discipline surrounding the judiciary — it was now okay for a judge to discuss a case, even express and opinion on what should be concluded, with a colleague.
The Appeal Court has corrected this mistake. Now the ball is in the court of JSC. It must act swiftly to restore public confidence — or prove that it is part of the problem.