Free Speech: A Vanishing Right
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Written by: Mark Oppenheimer
The Grahamstown Arts Festival runs a series of lectures and panel discussions under the rubric of Think!Fest. The idea is to gather academics and those with curious minds to debate the issues of the day. I attended a panel on free education; aimed at examining the merits of a total state subsidy for tertiary education. Instead of an open forum, the discussion was marred by vicious attacks on free speech.
The discussion was chaired by Judge Dennis Davis, who among many of his duties, heads up the Davis Tax Committee. The Vice Chancellor of Rhodes, Dr Mabizela, argued for partial subsidies that would assist poor students, without giving a free benefit to those who could afford to pay for university. Lindsay Maarsdorp, an activist from Black First Land First, called for revolutionary action and demanded the scrapping of all fees.
During the Q&A session I raised my hand and was asked to provide my name before asking my question. When I said ‘Oppenheimer’, I received jeers from those sitting around me. In response to the jeers I made the tongue-in-cheek remark that “I was from the Oppenheimer family who had oppressed most of the people in the room.”
At this juncture all hell broke loose. Mr Maarsdorp shouted repeatedly that I did not have a right to speak and threatened to take my microphone from me. After much commotion, Dr Mabizela stated calmly that:
“We have to respect the supreme law of the land, the Constitution. Everyone has a right to speak and we will not, we cannot allow a situation where someone is denied an opportunity to participate in a discussion. There is freedom of expression, freedom of thought and therefore, Judge, I think it is completely unacceptable to deny someone a right to participate in this discussion.”
Anthea Garman, a journalism lecturer and the convener of Think!Fest, interjected:
“We can’t just do – the Constitution allows every single person to speak and say whatever they like. There are certain spaces where that is possible and there are certain times where that is possible. We are not in one of those spaces right now. We are not in one of those times. That is my opinion as the convener of Think!Fest… What we are being told; that this not just a white person with an opinion, this is not just a black person with an opinion, an activist with an opinion or a VC. Our opinions are not equal here, they are embedded in our histories, in our exclusions and in our races’ positions… When white people speak, they take advantage of the fact that the Constitution allows them an extraordinarily huge amount of privilege to continue to obscure… You are going to have to own the fact that you tried to sidestep your name and what your name means in this space… The resort to the Constitution, in which everybody has equal voice does not obtain in this moment, in this context, at this time. These voices have different weight, different histories and there is a great deal of fraught contestation about it.”
Judge Davis responded that:
“This is reflective of precisely the difficulty that we are encountering in South Africa at this moment in time. Let’s be honest about this. There is a great deal of pain, legitimately because of three hundred years of racist rule. There is a sense in which white people, to be quite frank about it, use terms they bandy around, which only exacerbate hurt. On the other hand, part of the point about speech is that people do say things which to a large degree we don’t like, and if we are going to actually say that you can speak and you can’t speak, where do we get to? You can’t have a Think!Fest. My own view about it is that I thought that what Mr Oppenheimer had to say was most unfortunate, to be perfectly blunt, and only makes it worse. But on the other hand he’s got to have some right to say something. I don’t know what he wants to say and nobody’s going to give him a right to say it.”
More chaos ensued from the audience and between the panelists. Judge Davis stated that “to walk away would not be good enough. We’ve got to sort out this country’s mess and you don’t do it by simply walking away.”
Mr Maarsdorp proclaimed that:
“The status quo is anti-black, at a constitutional level, in terms of the land and in terms of this person sitting here… His whole existence, it plays out black oppression.”
An audience member interjected, but was immediately silenced by Mr Maarsdorp, who continued by saying:
“That is your white privilege that gives you the opportunity to interrupt me. Now you wait… When people like you use your white privilege, your white power, and use circumstances to still be allowed to speak… Your time is up. You must accept it. This is what it means to decolonise. We are coming for your land. It’s done. Your voice right now will not be heard in this space, because you are violent.”
During all of this, Ms Garman took the microphone away from me, something which I resisted at first and later gave into. There were moments when I thought that the crowd was on the verge of lynching me. An account of the events from a website entitled Black Opinion shows that my concerns were genuine:
During the question and answer session, a moment occurred where the antagonism between black and white became glaring. A member of the notoriously wealthy white capitalist family, the Oppenheimers, took the microphone and sarcastically said that yes his family had oppressed black people, so what. This resulted in a shouting match where some black members of the audience felt insulted and disrespected, resulting in them heckling Oppenheimer and refusing for him to speak.
Interestingly, when this happened, the VC – Sizwe Mabizela, took the microphone and defended the white man, saying that the constitution of the country allowed for freedom of speech. This was reiterated by other white members of the audience who clapped when Mabizela made this point.
This one conversation was a clear indication of how far we still need to go and that when the time for war comes, it will be black people who will stand in front of the white master screaming, “Don’t kill master.”
After such a glaring show of white arrogance and privilege by the Oppenheimer and his subsequent protection by some black, one wonders why this man was not sjamboked (given the fact that other black male students were sjamboked by ‘black’ feminists in the movement), beaten and attacked? When the student movement is faced with spontaneous moments of protest how does it react? Or does a moment that needs student intervention need to happen at the discretion of the students? Or are certain moments so demobilising that some students activists who were in the room felt that they could not act?
After the event finished, I made a point of speaking to the panelists in person.
Dr Mabizela gripped my hand warmly and apologised. He was troubled that a free discussion wasn’t possible at Rhodes. I learned from Judge Davis that he had been on the verge of walking out of the discussion.
Without a crowd to grandstand in front of, the fire in Lindsay’s eyes had subsided. I told him that we were both human beings and not representatives of our races. One on one, we were able to converse freely. We didn’t agree with each other, but I cherished the freedom to exchange our views.
During the discussion it was revealed that the cost of free tertiary education would be an extra R150 billion. If I were allowed to speak I would have asked the following questions:
To Judge Davis: “How much more money would you allocate to fund higher education? How would you adjust the tax rates to raise this money? Would you reallocate money spent on other areas of the budget to provide for the new expenditure?”
To the Vice Chancellor: “What is currently being done to subsidize the fees of poor students?”
Author: Mark Oppenheimer is a practicing advocate and member of the Johannesburg Bar. He has written a number of articles on non-racial affirmative action, property rights and free speech.