Zachie Achmat May Be A Hero, But He Is Quite Clueless About Free Speech

Written by: Ryan Rutherford

In 2016, the Gauteng Health Department relocated nearly 2000 psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni facilities to underfunded and poorly equipped NGOs.  As a result of this callously negligent decision, 144 extremely vulnerable people perished.  This was yet another example of heinous dereliction of duty, if not worse, by an uncaring, inefficient, and thoroughly inhumane government.  What has come to be referred to as the Life Esidimeni Tragedy, and the subsequent inquiry into how such a colossal loss of life could have happened, has understandably dominated headlines in South Africa for the better part of two years. In early February, the state vowed to pay each claimant from the tragedy R200 000, but on 19th March retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, who headed the inquiry tasked with probing the circumstances around the Health Department’s ill-fated transfer scheme, ordered the state to pay each victim’s family R1.2 million in compensation.

As a response to this development, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille tweeted that while it was “good that the families of the Life Esidimeni victims have received a measure of justice and compensation,” she wanted to know what they did “before these tragic deaths, to raise the alarm about their loved ones starving + living in profound neglect?” The condemnatory responses were swift, with her own party’s spokesperson, Refiloe Nt’sekhe, calling Zille’s remarks “unfortunate”, inappropriate” and “inefficient.” It was also reported that the leader of the Democratic Alliance, Musi Maimane, did not support her views.

Among the strongest reactions to Zille’s comments was from Zackie Achmat, renowned social activist and a member of the UniteBehind Organising Secretariat, who declared his intention to lay a complaint with the Human Rights Commission against the Premier. Zackie Achmat is undoubtedly one of the finest South Africans in existence, a man whose tireless efforts on behalf of those with HIV ensured that millions of people gained access to life-saving drugs initially denied to them for years by the ANC government.  Whatever his admirable personal qualities and tremendous success in fighting for a better country, Achmat’s actions evince a troubling tendency in South Africa for government agencies to be called on to adjudicate matters of expression. If one finds Zille’s opinions troubling, or even completely egregious, then by all means make this known in any public forum of one’s choosing. To instead seek public censure for someone’s opinion sets a dangerous precedent, one that has been in ever-increasing evidence in South Africa over the last few years.

That the Human Rights Commission exists in the first place is highly problematic, serving as it all too often does in the capacity of the language police, but its selective condemnation in the context of contemporary South Africa is particularly worrying. Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), regularly makes the most repulsively racist statements directed at whites. His most recent outrage was at a rally where he declared an intention to “decapitate whiteness,” a statement with clear genocidal implications. The head of the Human Rights Commission has admitted that the organisation received seventeen complaints about Malema’s vile demagogic spewing, but has yet to take any action against him. This is not the first time Malema has made statements that serve only to incite hate and sow racial divisions. On the other hand, and this was particularly the case in 2016, often very innocuous or ambiguous statements by white people, or admittedly racist opinions by figures with barely any public profile, led to them losing their jobs, or receiving hefty fines, as in the case of Penny Sparrow. If the Human Rights Commission is going to justify its existence, at the very least it needs to take action against all public officials who declare openly racist statements, rather than almost exclusively those with a melanin deficiency. Based on its recent track record, the Human Rights Commission, a quite Orwellian name to be sure, should be re-dubbed the Anti-White Censorship Commission, because that appears to be its practical function, whatever high-minded sentiments it purports to be defending.

Setting aside the failures of the Human Rights Commission to serve as a fair arbiter in disputes about what kind of language constitutes hate speech, even were it to function in a more even-handed manner, its very existence should be called into serious question for those who value free speech.

Not only is this an intrinsic human right, recognised as such by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, among other major international bodies, and a cornerstone of democracies the world over, but, as Sam Harris once pointed out, free speech should be seen as the master value, the one that makes all the others possible. Without allowing everyone to freely express their opinions, society loses the ability to have the necessary and always ongoing conversation among its citizens about the best way to live. To block this discussion is, again according to Harris, akin to placing a brick on the horizon to the future, a vivid metaphor that powerfully captures what is at stake in debates around free speech.

Any government that attempts to regulate what people can say, think, read, watch, or listen to is never a friend of freedom, whatever reasons it might articulate to justify such intrusions.  The remedy for bad speech, however one defines this, is always more speech, and never less. It would also do well to remember that empowering a government to curtail someone else’s free speech today could very easily become the harbinger for your own speech to be criminalised tomorrow. The slope in this area is indeed most slippery. In a legendary, if apocryphal, defence of free speech, the great Enlightenment philosophe, Voltaire is alleged to have stated that, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In today’s South Africa that sentiment is almost entirely absent among major politicians and media figures, with even iconic champions of human rights joining the censorship bandwagon. If we do not at least try to live up to Voltaire’s injunction, the road to true freedom and a better society for us all could well become definitively closed off.

Author: Ryan Rutherford has an honours degree in english literature, worked for almost six years as a teacher in South Korea, recently completed a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Cape Town, and is an increasingly impassioned defender of individual liberty and Enlightenment values at the expense of irrational identitarianism of all stripes.

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