Bids to gag critics will add injury to insults
Blade Nzimande and the SACP in KwaZulu-Natal have opened a can of very ugly worms with their call for controls on the language used to debate the qualities of our president.
They have planted an idea that will drive debate in the direction of suppression because there is a large community of people in and on the fringes of power who would benefit more from opacity than from transparency.
No one in the chain of "five percenters" who depend on skimming government contracts manipulated by friends for their wealth is going to mourn any clamp on the scrutiny of their networks.
Nzimande has backed away from his overt support for legislation to control "insults" directed against President Jacob Zuma, and now calls for a public debate about protection for the office of the president.
But the seed has been planted and many who have already tilted the balance of public opinion against freedom of expression and of the press will rejoice.
Others have already written quite fully on the extent to which "insult laws" are common around the world, and the truth is that South Africa would be far from alone in affording the head of state some special protection from adverse comment.
Even France still has a statute on its books allowing for those who insult the country's president to be punished with a fine that could buy a small house.
Not surprisingly, such laws are common in the Middle East. But it is here in Africa where they remain most prevalent - though the trend actually is away from special laws to protect government leaders rather than towards them.
Our own Pansy Tlakula, the African Union's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, launched a campaign against criminal defamation laws, including insult laws, in Yamoussoukro in the Ivory Coast last month.
Ghana has abolished its insult laws. Liberia is heading the same way while Zimbabwe continues to demonstrate both the worst application of such legislation and the greatest need for its repeal.
So why is this coming up in South Africa just when it is dying down in other parts of the continent?
We do and always have exercised our freedoms with enthusiasm in this country. Zapiro's cartoon depicting the imminent rape of lady justice and Brett Murray's TheSpear painting pushed the envelope in ways that commentators in few other African countries would dare to do, but they are not the first to speak freely.
Columnists and analysts do not shy away from hyperbole in describing what they perceive to be the failings of our government and its current leader, Zuma.
We are a robust people in private conversation and in public commentary. Many of us believe that is one of the strongest guarantees of a successful future for South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was protected to a large extent by the nation's huge affection for him.
There can be no doubt that he got away with things that would have triggered critical commentary and humiliating cartoons had they been repeated later by Zuma or by Thabo Mbeki.
But he was not totally exempt. Page through Zapiro's annual collections for the period and you will find that Mandela faced some harsh commentary.
Go back further to the PW Botha era and you will find cartoons by Zapiro and commentary by columnists every bit as harsh as that now being directed towards Zuma. One I recall depicted Botha consummating his relationship with a younger fiancée while his teeth grinned from a glass by the bedside and a towel covered a picture of his first wife on the wall over the bed.
The commentary that Nzimande and his ilk complain about may be harsh, but it is not gratuitous.
The truth is that leaders are pilloried in inverse proportion to the quality of their leadership. Presidents who behave in ways that would embarrass most sons and mothers get more rotten fruit pitched their way than those who set a better example.
Leave the daughters of your good friends to sleep alone in their own beds, let justice prevail blind to the status of its subjects, live according to your own means and no one is going to have much bad to say about you in words or pictures.
But we are way past that point now. Zuma and his extended political family have perpetrated, encouraged and condoned so many lapses of good governance already. And if Mangaung goes the way many now expect, we will have another seven years of it.
So we should expect this campaign to gag Zuma's critics to escalate if the 4500 ANC delegates who carry the nation's proxy put him back in power next month. There is no reason to expect that he will change his ways, and every reason to assume that those who depend on him will try to raise the walls around him.
What we need to ensure is that the battle is fought at the edges and that the centre holds.
Nzimande has sought crudely to frame the insult debate in terms of race: it is whites, he says, who are driving the denigration of his leader. He frames the conflict as one between what he calls "white conservative liberalism" and legitimate black culture.
Some of Zuma's critics are white. Jonathan Shapiro, the name behind Zapiro's pen, is white. But page through any newspaper, log onto Twitter, tune in even to the SABC, scan Facebook and you will see many, many more African voices raised in concern than there are white.
They are the people Zuma calls "clever blacks" - and he does not mean it as a compliment.
If Nzimande can succeed in defining this as a racial showdown, he will define the community of black intellectuals onto his side of the wall. And if whites really have mounted a common assault against black people then we have to roll back 20 years and renew the fight we thought was won by non-racialism in the 1990s.
But that is not what it is or ever will be about.
It's about the right to say what you think in print and in pictures - a right we must protect because we are a successful, progressive democracy with the potential to be really, really great.