It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Gareth Cliff, Free Speech and a time to Re-Imagine

It’s been a tough start to our New Year in South Africa. Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities starts out:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Sometimes the worst we go through helps to break us open in a way that light can get in.

The vile racist sentiment expressed of late on social platforms has amplified the conversation and maybe, just maybe more ordinary South Africans will start to see the structural conditions that have allowed a minority to thrive and to continue to do so and that our majority continues to find it difficult and in some cases, near impossible to break out of cycles of poverty.

 On our Alternative Dispute Resolution programs of late, we have spent more time unpacking the Genesis of Violence. Camara’s work on the Spiral of Violence unpacks a three-dimensional model:

 Violence #1 Systems that create and sustain poverty which leads to

Violence #2 disease, addiction, domestic violence, suicide, homicide, gangs, violent public protest which leads to

Violence #3 Police, military, criminal justice which leads back to violence #1

 Restorative Justice Practitioners have traditionally mobilized at #2 and #3 but there is a growing awakening for stronger mobilization at violence #1.

The conversations we have right now are important. This is a time for us all to learn together. Last week Advocate Dali Mpofu, in conversation with Gareth Cliff said that if we knew how important economic freedom was, we would all be working hard at it. And it is important. I want my son and daughter to inherit a just and peaceful society. I am constantly shocked at the heightening private security controls in elitest residential and commercial estates. The walls we build don’t make us any safer. They make us less safe. They heighten our fear and sense of the “otherness”of our brothers and sisters. None of it is sustainable. We may not fully grasp it, but our best hope is wrapped up in working for a more just society in our country. Not in a more efficient private security system and certainly not in “tough on crime” politics. That’s a band aid. Or an attempt at cure. And a violent one at that.

 Gareth Cliff defended the vile musings of Penny Sparrow, not the substance of what she said, but that she said it. He said that South Africans didn’t understand the right to free speech. Idols has ditched him and there is a widespread notion that he was ditched for defending our right to free speech. This is not correct!

Constitutional law is about balancing rights. Human Rights come with corresponding human agency. Agency points to responsibility. As agents of our rights, we are responsible to exercise our rights in ways that other rights are not violated. In expressing myself, for example, I must be mindful of the human right to dignity. I must also be mindful that even at common law three aspects of personality are protected: the physical being (I can’t assault you, unless in defence of my or another’s life), the psychlical being, made up of dignity and reputation. I can’t injure how you see yourself and I can’t injure how others see you (unless it’s truth for public benefit.)

 But why do we even need laws to tell us how to be humane? Why do we think we must protect the Gareth Cliffs of this world who get away with vile jokes about the vulnerable and marginalized. Why would we ever think that our right to freedom of expression would ever extend to a right to reducing our brothers and sisters to animals. Why would we think that that would be beneficial in any way? Have we gone insane?

Maybe, just maybe we are going through the pain of going sane. But I think the key lies somewhere in moving through the pain. As Henry Nouwen says, the way out of pain is never around it, but into it and through it.

 It’s a painful time for us. 1994 kept the peace so to speak. But it’s time to usher in a whole new season of peacemaking. Peacekeeping is more about subduing and getting people to calm down. Often violent methods are invoked.

Peacemaking is the much, much tougher work of ushering in justice.

May we all find renewed energy to work towards a just peace.

In peace (by the presence of justice)

Sheena Jonker

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