OPINION | Chris Jones: We should be allowed to speak our minds, but in a responsible manner

The right to freedom of expression allows us to voice our concerns about violations of the basic human rights of so many South Africans, argues the author.

The right to freedom of expression allows us to voice our concerns about violations of the basic human rights of so many South Africans, argues the author.

Celebrated annually on 21 March, Human Rights Day is an important event on our national calendar because it reminds us of our treasured human rights and the cost of achieving them.

As part of this year’s celebrations, I would like to link this article to the fundamental right to freedom of expression as contained in Article 16 of our Constitution. I point out that one should not shy away from robust dialogue in a lively and active public sphere, but it must happen within the framework of responsibility in order to build and develop our country.

The right to freedom of expression allows us to voice our concerns about violations of the basic human rights of so many South Africans. It is safe to say that without the right to express ourselves freely, many of these violations would have gone unnoticed.

Open your mind

I recently recalled the musing of Christof Heyns, a former law professor at the University of Pretoria, which was published in March 2011 in the volume “PULP Fictions: A Space for Dialogue”. 

Heyns tells the story of a country far away where the ruler cared deeply for his people. They could read and write at will; they could make music and dance in the streets. There were art galleries and beautiful old buildings. People could express themselves in different ways.

One day the ruler decided to walk through the streets of his city with his trusted adviser – undercover. They stopped at some of the paintings against the walls, which made him seriously wonder if it gave people an accurate idea of ??what life is all about. He suddenly realised that they lived in a fantasy world.

He then decided on an experiment he called: “Project Open Your Mind”. He placed a large frieze on the city wall. As part of this, the Palace of Justice, a national monument, which housed the high court, was burning.

In another part of the country, he asked his favourite painter as well as a young lesser-known artist to show how depraving one person can be against another, and men towards women and children. Soon there were images of children whose heads had been cut off as well as women hanging upside down after troops from a neighbouring country raped them.

The younger artist was more experimental. He placed the carcasses of pigs and poodles in glass containers so that people could see how their colour changed as the animals rotted in the sun in the containers.

In another part of the city, people from a specific section of the population were requested to play their traditional music in the streets for a month – it almost sounded like boeremusiek. The ruler knew many people did not like it.

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However, he was surprised when there was a sudden protest against the music, paintings were removed from trees, and there were even protests calling for an end to “Project Open Your Mind”.  Some of the glass containers with carcasses were smashed with stones, heated debates ensued, even fistfights. An elderly man was quoted as saying: “There is enough evil in the world – we must try to forget it, not celebrate it”.

His daughter was also interviewed: “No, we must see how dark our hearts really are. This is the truth we have been hiding from all these years”.

One of the speakers at a senate meeting of the local university said he did not like the “Project Open Your Mind”, but he did feel challenged by it. However, he suggested that the university should find other ways to encourage students to think more for themselves. “If we want our students to be more innovative, we need to challenge their certainties – that is the only way to prepare them for the real world”.

Someone else said that these paintings should rather be displayed in a museum where one has a choice whether you want to look at them or not. The boeremusiek should be played in a hall and not in the streets.

‘What about our rights to speak?’

Someone else said that they were never consulted about this. The ruler decided on their behalf. “What about our rights to speak and be heard? What about our freedom of speech?”

A man in a long black coat, with Goth make-up and a black cap, stood with a friend near the door, listening attentively to all the arguments.

“You are such prudes” a law student said in disgust. “Why are you so shocked and outraged? You are judgemental and intolerant of challenging ideas. I despise your small-mindedness.”

Just then the wind changed direction, and the smell of one of the rotten carcasses in a broken glass container filled the room. The stench was so bad that the people left. The meeting was over.

The man in the black coat – the ruler – and his trusted adviser walked towards the State House, where the government was based, asking: “What would it have said about us if no one objected?”

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As they approached the Palace of Justice, they saw black smoke come through the roof of the building. It was on fire. They were engulfed by thick smoke, and tear gas burned their eyes. In the distance, people ran away from the excessive force applied by the police, beating them with sjamboks.

When the smoke cleared, the ruler and his adviser walked slowly in the direction of the State House. In the distance, they heard the sound of an accordion.

Responsible expression

So, what can we take from this story for our South African context? A democratic country like ours, given its past, needs freedom of expression. We must open spaces for discussion, dialogue and dissent, and opportunities for creativity. Citizens must be allowed to exercise the right to speak their minds, but we all have roles to play in this.

The work of the artist and the public intellectual is to provoke us, but then – equally important – we must allow ourselves to be provoked. What will it say of us if we do not bat an eye when we see pictures and read reports of women who have been raped, of stinking, running sewage in our streets, police misconduct, the destructive burning of buildings, barbaric violence against children, corruption, and brutal murders – and do not protest to the highest heavens? What will it say of us if we don’t exercise our right to speak freely about these atrocities?

It is this right of freedom of expression, one of the cornerstones of a democratic society, which challenges people to continuously negotiate not only the need for and value of freedom of expression, but also its potential impact and consequences.

Freedom of expression demands a space where all the tensions can find a place for comfortable but responsible expression. This is how one builds a united South Africa, able to take its place in the family of nations.

– Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.