Destruction of Books Signals the End of Freedom

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Protestors stormed Exclusive Books in Sandton City on Tuesday night, disrupting the launch of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s new book, Gangster State. The protestors, some of whom wore ANC t-shirts, seized copies of the book and tore them up. They refused to leave even after security arrived.

The book claims to expose the network of state capture under ANC secretary general Ace Magashule. While one would expect, even welcome, constructive, well-supported criticism and rebuttals of the grave allegations made by the author, the actions by the protestors indicates much more than an unwillingness to entertain arguments other than one’s own. Their actions clearly show a drive to take active steps to silence any thoughts which are anathema to their own.

Freedom of expression is very easily lost. We take it for granted, and perhaps in some ways we think we’ll always be able to say what we like. We are in for a very rude awakening. Freedom of expression has most assuredly not been the rule throughout human history. There have been pockets of expression, but it only became entrenched, and highly valued, through the liberal tradition.

The destruction of books, and the threat to burn them, shows that some people will no longer subscribe to the rule of law. They will not allow any criticism, however well-substantiated, of their leaders, of those they deem above the normal rules which apply to us lowly citizens. Freedom of expression cannot exist for some and not for others – for the concept to have any substantial meaning each and every individual must be allowed to speak his or her mind, regardless of the offense it may cause.

Speaking on Karima Brown’s show on Talk Radio 702, the ANC’s Dakota Legoete said that the ANC fully condemns the actions of the protestors. The man at the centre of the allegations, Ace Magashule, on Wednesday also distanced himself from the protestors’ actions, saying that:

“The Constitution and laws of the country allow for channels to follow when we disagree with information and ideas, whether in books or the media. I have indicated to my organisation that I am pursuing legal action against the false allegations made in the book.”

While the words from both ANC representatives are encouraging, we have to see whether any of the protestors are disciplined. Only strong measures and actions against them will stop this problem before it becomes a much wider, entrenched phenomenon.

While some within the ANC have condemned the destructive actions of the protestors, the Free State ANC Youth League’s provincial secretary, Reagan Booysen, has said that the organisation plans to go ahead with its planned burning of Gangster State next Monday. While condemning the actions of the protestors on Tuesday, Booysen said that their book burning is different from what happened at Exclusive Books because theirs is a “planned event”. According to his logic, if one at the very least plans something immoral, that is more than adequate justification.

Booysen also said, “Our event is different because we are saying people need to burn those books as there is no truth in that book and there is a lot of contradictions in that book.”

Let us accept his contention that there is no truth in Myburgh’s book. If Booysen firmly believes what he is saying, he should be more than willing for the book to be read and examined widely. Magashule is fully within his rights to pursue legal action against Myburgh. Let the arguments and thoughts in the book stand or fall on their own merits. There is nothing that more clearly indicates a lack of true conviction in the merit of your own argument than to attempt to silence any argument different from what you believe.

We have witnessed a steady chipping away of freedom of expression on university campuses in the West, and this is filtering through into broader society. The trends amongst intellectuals, for better or worse, provide a portent for the directions in which society will eventually move. Ideas precede, and predict, people’s actions. When people are only allowed to speak based on their race or gender, accidents of birth, we have freedom in name only.

If we really want free people who can live their lives as they see fit, and not only pay lip-service to the idea, we need to accept that some people will have ideas with which we are uncomfortable. It is up to each person to engage with ideas and assess on their own what they agree or disagree with. The silencing of ‘offensive’ content is a necessary element of any authoritarian state: Those in control cannot attain their utopia if anyone holds, and advocates for, ideas which stand in opposition to theirs.

The Apartheid regime burnt books in their thousands. The Nazis very quickly burnt books and silenced their critics. Communist regimes only survive insofar as they can destroy ideas which may encourage people to think and live freely. All of these regimes were philosophically collectivist, and collectivism cannot allow any dissent from groups or individuals outside of those in power.

What comes after the destruction of books and the arguments they contain? Silencing of the authors who conceptualised those arguments. If you are not free to think, you are not free to live.

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