Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
7 July 2008

Racist yes, but not because Mugabe is “President”

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned an advert for Peach Mobile depicting “President” Robert Mugabe as a caged gorilla. The advert shows Mugabe’s face superimposed on a gorilla’s body. He sits in a cage at the “Zim Zoo” wearing pink sunglasses and holding a sign that says “Keep me in”. Then a woman is heard screaming: “Hey wena, hey wena [hey you], answer.” Mugabe then sings: “Hey robber Mugabe, you rob-a my country, you rob-a the money, you rob-a the people,” with engorged eyes.

According to The Times ASA argued that:

The tone of the commercial is disparaging and insulting to Robert Mugabe and as such is demeaning and lowers his dignity… A hypothetical reasonable person would be offended on viewing the commercial. There is nothing light-hearted and humorous in depicting a human being, especially a president of a country, as a gorilla.

I agree that the advert is beyond the pale. In the context of deeply entrenched racism and xenophobia in South Africa the depiction of a black man as a gorilla must surely be offensive to any decent and right thinking person. It perpetuates deeply offensive and dangerous stereotypes about Africans as animals. Even if it was supposed to be funny, I cannot see how such an advert can ever be acceptable in South Africa where incidents like the Reitz video shows how many whites still do not respect the inherent equality and dignity of Africans.

That is why I also feel uncomfortable with the Vodacom advert which makes fun of an African dictator, who is so stupid that he pretends to have all the Vodacom advertised goodies like special ring tones, by ordering his minions around him to produce them manually.

But I must say I find the reasoning of ASA as reported in The Times quite absurd.

The problem is not that the advert lowers the dignity of Mugabe, or that it lowers the dignity of a “President”. (Should all editors not now insist that when writing about Mugabe the word “president” be placed in inverted commas, given the fact that he was not legitimately elected as President of Zimbabwe?)

The advert is offensive because it perpetrates stereotypes of Africans in general. Its only redeeming feature is that it might lower the dignity of Mugabe as a person and might offend him. And the fact that he is the “President” of another country should also really not be relevant. In a country based on the Rule of Law, Presidents do not have more right to dignity than the rest of us because we are all equal before the law.

Mugabe is a dictator and it should be perfectly acceptable in an open and democratic society to make fun of or ridicule – even in quite a harsh manner – the murderous dictator of another country. An advert showing Mugabe with blood dripping from his hands, for example, will lower his dignity, but should surely be acceptable as long as the subtext of the advert is not that all or many Africans share the murderous inclinations of the “President” up North.

When one becomes a dictator one surely gives up the right to have one’s dignity respected by the inhabitants of another, democratic, country. In fact, in a democracy it should be our duty to mock and ridicule dictators like Mugabe. Given the fact that dictators like Mugabe are often quite thin-skinned and vain, mocking them is rather emotionally gratifying and also helps assert the notion that dictatorship is wrong and democracy is good.

It all depends on the context in which the mocking is done. Mocking a dictator in a way that merely perpetuates stereotypes about Africa or Africans are therefore beyond the pale. It is sad that ASA cannot see this distinction.

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