01 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Self-censorship is found in Corporate South Africa too and, on occasion, business leaders speak out, but in the main keep their heads down and hope for the best, writes Tony Leon
GARLANDED with honours, showered with honorary degrees and heaped with international gongs, including a Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Mandela is not exactly short of acclamation at home and abroad. But in retelling his storied presidency, it is easy to overlook a notorious, much less merited award he once received. Back in February 1998, the South African edition of porn magazine Hustler indecorously named the great Madiba, "Asshole of the Month."
According to Mandela’s authorised biographer Anthony Sampson, then deputy minister of home affairs Lindiwe Sisulu criticised the magazine as "vile, outrageous and obscene" and considered, apparently, banning it. Mandela, in contrast, "laughed the matter off’’ and said, somewhat oxymoronically, that the magazine should use its "own sense of morality and judgment". In the midst of the fuss, he surprised his director-general, Jakes Gerwel, by asking him impishly: "Have you seen this month’s Hustler?"
Fifteen years on, Mandela’s aversion to censoring anything appears to have been replaced by a self-censorship that invades some of the very spaces that under apartheid manned the ramparts of free expression in a very unfree society. Despite the generous provisions for freedom of expression under our constitution, weekend reports suggest "a politically sensitive work of art" was banned by organisers of last week’s Joburg Art Fair. The offending item, according to the Sunday Times, was Ayanda Mabulu’s painting, which depicts, in the wake of Marikana, "a laughing President Jacob Zuma holding the leash of a dog that is threatening to bite a kneeling miner’’. Others in the tableau are Cyril Ramaphosa and a laughing (in itself unusual) Queen Elizabeth who shares a veranda with Prince Charles and the African National Congress logo.
Ross Douglas, one of the fair’s organisers, said the artwork was removed because of "sensitivities" around government sponsorship of the art fair, which he feared would be jeopardised by the display. Only the forceful response of internationally acclaimed Johannesburg photographer David Goldblatt, who removed his works in protest, led to the ban being rescinded. Liza Essers, director of the Goodman Gallery, which housed The Spear last year, and at least had the excuse of mass marches and vandalism to force her hand on removing that painting, noted: "As a result of The Spear saga … a culture of self-censorship has become increasingly ubiquitous in the South African art world."
There is something paradoxical about the instances of self-censorship, by no means confined to arts and culture, and the exuberance of often extreme antigovernment and deeply personal attacks on the president — both of which feature in South Africa today. The rule of thumb appears to be: the further away from the government and the less dependent on it for your fortunes, the more hyped, even on occasion exaggerated, the criticism. Think here of the egregious Julius Malema’s depiction of the government as "worse than the apartheid regime". This covers the opposition, much of the nongovernmental organisation and media community (with some notable exceptions) and many international investors.
Conversely, the more enmeshed with the government and dependent on its favour, the more muted the response even when vital interests are at stake. Corporate South Africa uneasily straddles this divide, despite a torrent of market-unfriendly measures coming down the pipeline. On occasion, business leaders speak out and even break down in tears as Anglo’s Mark Cutifani recently and memorably did. But in the main, they keep heads down and hope for the best. It’s reminiscent of the great scene in the movie Annie Hall. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are on a date and mouthing onscreen the usual platitudes of courtship. However, below the scene appear subtitles which depict what each of them is actually thinking. We are witnessing many Annie Hall moments in the business-government dialogue.
A contrast came from Britain last week. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband decided to offer up some red-in-tooth-and-claw anti-big business sentiment to pacify his supporters. Miliband used his conference speech to take aim at and decry the country’s energy firms, deeply unpopular with voters because of ever-rising gas and electricity bills. He announced that on entering office, he would price control and freeze all gas and electricity prices for 20 months after the next election.
There was an instant and angry response from the big six energy companies targeted. One of them announced such a move would make it unviable to continue to provide supplying energy in Britain. A second predicted blackouts and another decried Miliband’s policy as "economic vandalism" and "insane".
A head-on collision between big business and the possible next prime minister might be troubling for some, but it certainly deepens the debate. And neither side has any doubt what the one thinks of the other.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA