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Insulting the president is not a crime

Frans Cronje on the culture of intolerance taking root in the Zuma party state.

This week a student at the University of Cape Town was arrested and detained in police cells for ‘insulting the president’ while a member of the opposition was thrown out of Parliament for doing the same. Both of these incidents are welcome, and the extensive media coverage they have received even more so, in that they might alert many complacent South Africans to the culture of political impunity and intolerance taking root in Government and the ANC.

Last week this column warned against the police playing a partisan political role on behalf of the ANC. This came after allegations that the police had beaten and tortured the families of community activists who had participated in protest action against the Government in Balfour in Mpumalanga. 

This week we sound a similar note of caution.

Media reports indicate that a student at the University of Cape Town made some gesture at a passing police convoy containing President Zuma. The student, a Mr Chumani Maxwele, was apparently jogging when the convoy passed him. The police allege that he gestured at the convoy in what they thought was a rude way and they therefore arrested him. He was charged with crimen injuria and detained at various police stations before being released 24 hours later.

There are a number of concerns arising from the police’s behaviour. The first is pointed out by Professor Richard Calland of the University of Cape Town in The Star where he says that it is a short step from this type of behaviour to outlawing legitimate protest action against the State. This column might go a step further and say that the behaviour of the police in Balfour last week suggests that this may already be happening.

The second concern is related to the first and follows allegations by Mr Maxwele that the police placed a bag over his head and interrogated him about his political affiliations. He was reportedly forced to name the head of the local African National Congress (ANC) branch and give details on his friends and associates. This is an early hint to the fact that there are elements within the South African Police Service who are beginning to assume a partisan political character in executing their duties. Mr Maxwele is reported to be a member of the ANC but the incident leaves one to wonder what the police may have done if Mr Maxwele was found to have ties with another political party.       

The third concern is one for the ANC to ponder. If more incidents like this one are allowed to take place South African citizens will increasingly fear the approach of the blue-light convoys of black BMWs that ferry political leaders around South Africa. Many already fear these convoys, which have been known to open fire on innocent civilians who get in their way. What does it say to the ANC that many South Africans now live in physical fear of running into the country’s political leaders? It is a phenomenon far removed from the confident embrace that greeted so many of these same leaders on their return from exile or release from prison during the early 1990s.   

The fourth concern is that when a private citizen is arrested for ‘insulting the president’, which is in effect what Mr Maxwele was charged with, the Government and the ANC take one step closer to assuming the comical status of the typical African tin-pot dictatorship. Mr John Scott writing on IOL.co.za gets this sentiment spot on with his list of things to do when a presidential convoy passes by. He writes:

“The incident has shown how careful we must all be when presidential convoys drive past. Watch your gestures like a hawk. Don’t even stick up your finger to see if it’s raining. The VIP police are ever-vigilant to see which finger is being raised, aware that one of their chief functions is to protect the president from the wrong finger. Now for the good news. There are still things you are allowed to do when the president’s blue-light brigade roars past you, all sirens going. You can wave enthusiastic greetings, you can doff your forelock, you can hold up both hands in surrender, you can give a Hitler salute (the Fuhrer never complained), or you can simply bow, scrape and otherwise demonstrate your abject respect.”

Stories of the behaviour of African leaders north of the Limpopo are legion in this respect in how they clear major roadways of civilian traffic for their presidents’ motorcades to pass by unhindered. They are equally well known for arresting and intimidating civilians who get in their way. Many of these quasi-democracies have even passed laws that make it a crime to ‘impinge’ upon the dignity of the president.

Apologists for the government and the ANC may say that this was a once-off mistake by some over-eager policemen. What then to make of the fact the speaker of Parliament this week ordered an opposition MP out of the house for suggesting that the president was leading the country into lawlessness? The speaker refused to hear any points of order on her ruling and the two largest opposition parties walked out of Parliament in solidarity with their expelled colleague. 

When the police are arresting people for insulting the president and the speaker of Parliament is throwing members out of the house for doing the same then the country is in a sorry state. South Africa’s standing as free and open society has never been guaranteed and remaining free and open will require much vigilance. It remains to be seen though whether this vigilance, practised by the media, the political opposition, and a small group of civil society organisations, will be sufficient to arrest our slide down the slope to joining Africa’s quasi-democracies where abuses of political power are par for the course.

Follow the link here to vote on what to do if you see a political blue-light convoy approach. We will publish the results in a future article.

Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in SAIRR Today, the Institute’s weekly online newsletter.

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