Quote of the week

Mr Zuma is no ordinary litigant. He is the former President of the Republic, who remains a public figure and continues to wield significant political influence, while acting as an example to his supporters… He has a great deal of power to incite others to similarly defy court orders because his actions and any consequences, or lack thereof, are being closely observed by the public. If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law. As this Court noted in Mamabolo, “[n]o one familiar with our history can be unaware of the very special need to preserve the integrity of the rule of law”. Mr Zuma is subject to the laws of the Republic. No person enjoys exclusion or exemption from the sovereignty of our laws… It would be antithetical to the value of accountability if those who once held high office are not bound by the law.

Khampepe j
Secretary of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State v Zuma and Others (CCT 52/21) [2021] ZACC 18
26 October 2007

Snuki, SABC should respect the dignity of everyone – not just of the VIP’s

Some in the media can be rather sanctimonious about their right to say what they want to. Almost as sanctimonious, that is, as the politicians and their hangers on who so easily throw hissy-fits because of a perceived lack of respect shown by the media towards what they think are rather important people.

In the process a lot of nonsense is spoken about the Constitution and the need to “balance” the right to human dignity with the right to freedom of expression. Maybe this nonsense is spoken out of ignorance, but perhaps it is spoken out of a Machiavellian need to protect politicians and other VIP’s from scrutiny and criticism.

The lack of understanding of what the Constitution requires is neatly illustrated by Snuki Zikalala, who earlier this week said the SABC would never have published stories about Manto Tshabalala-Msimang being a thief and a drunk.

“We are guided by the constitution not to incite violence or hatred in our reporting, said Snuki Zikalala, the SABC’s chief of news yesterday. “Publishing such a story is disrespectful.”

Well, one is prone to make excuses for Snuki, seeing as he has a Phd from Bulgaria, so I did not think much of this silly statement. But then, a day later, Smuts Ngonyama, someone who should know better, complained about the way politicians are lampooned in Zapiro cartoons.

“People drawn as beetroots, or with showers grafted onto their heads, are increasingly depicted in the same way, in the parts of newspapers [in which] one expects to find facts and analysis,” said Ngonyama at a colloquium at Wits University on the media policy of the ANC. “Caricature now seems an acceptable, even expected, type of news reporting,” said an incredulous Ngonyama.

One could, of course, make the obvious point that in a Constitutional democracy politicians and other VIP’s are accountable to the rest of us and that criticism of politicians – even harsh criticism or vicious lampooning – is an essential part of democracy.

But there is a more important point to be made about the way both these gentlemen seems to suggest that politicians are deserving of special protection and that they must be respected because they are important people in the community. Implicit in this argument is that this is required to protect their human dignity and that the right to freedom of the media must thus be “balanced” against these people’s right to dignity.

The problem is that these people are confusing the common law notion of subjective dignity that was well known in the apartheid days, with the Constitutional notion of dignity. The former is the kind of dignity that is protected by the laws of defamation and is based on the assumption that some people have a bigger reputation and must therefore be specially protected by the law.

This is exactly the opposite of the Constitutional notion of dignity which is based on the assumption that every individual has an equal moral worth and needs to have their dignity respected equally. Whether one is a newborn baby or the President of the country, constitutionally one has equal dignity that must be equally respected and protected.

Protecting a person’s dignity in the constitutional sense therefore has very little to do with ensuring that important politicians do not have their feelings hurt by the truth – the common law of defamation takes care of that potential harm in appropriate cases. The Constitution, on the other hand, deals with a far more profound and important notion of dignity because it aims at creating a society in which each human being’s humanity is equally respected – whether one is a Manto Tshabalal Msimang, Jacob Zuma (with or without a shower head on his head) or Snuki Zikalala.

To live a life of dignity requires that a person must be able to make life choices, to decide for themselves who they are and how they want to live. To be able to have food to eat, clothes to wear and a shelter to live in.

It thus suggests that freedom of expression needs to be guaranteed exactly to safeguard the human dignity of the 48 million South Africans – not just the few hundred politicians and their lackeys. This is because individuals cannot decide for themselves how to live and who we are, we cannot begin to have moral agency, if we are not informed by the media about what is happening in the world and what our options are. To suppress information of public importance is to treat people like children and hence to disrespect their human dignity.

Politicians and boot-lickers of the powerful and influential who claim that their personal subjective dignity should trump the objective, more profound, dignity protected in the Constitution, are therefore self-serving charlatans hiding behind a completely false understanding of the Constitution.

What the SABC is doing is disrespecting the constitutional dignity of the 48 million ordinary South Africans to protect the common law dignity of the few VIPs. It has everything to do with protecting people from criticism and nothing to do with the Constitution.

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