Op-ed: Freedom of speech is upside-down

5 08 2011

Note: Versions of this article have appeared in the Catalogue of the 2011 Jozi Book Fair and 5 August 2011 edition of The New Age.

We live in a world turned on its head, a desolate, de-souled world that practices the superstitious worship of machines and the idolatry of arms, an upside-down world with its left on its right, its belly button on its backside, and its head where its feet should be… It’s a world where children work and don’t play, where ‘development’ makes people poorer, where cars are in streets where people should be, where a tiny minority of the world consumes a majority of its resources…If the world is upside-down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?

-Eduardo Galeano

Celebrated Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano would surely also agree that there is something upside-down about the way freedom of speech is meted out in our society.

In South Africa, anyone can say anything she or he likes. We are “free”. We have the right to freedom of speech or so says our Constitution. Malema can mouth off all he wants about nationalisation while standing to benefit from it, Zille can falsely claim that there is no more raw sewage on Cape Town’s streets, and Zuma, our ultimate patriarch, can profess that he abhors the abuse of women. We are free to listen to the views of the elites, non-stop. From Generations to Tutu to Zapiro. Sometimes what is said is also a damn accurate description of how fucked up our world is today.

Yet there is something wrong with even the most well-meaning voices that we listen to, read, or watch, in the media today. It’s not necessarily that they are wrong, but that these voices are upside down. These voices are vetted, compartmentalised and sold for an industrial complex that has one bottom line: profit (and not just any profit but profit without risk).

There is an inequality of communications that rivals the inequality of wealth in this country. We hear politicians, academics, and development professionals talk about a poverty that they have, with few exceptions, never even experienced. Yet where are the voices of those actually living in this poverty?

We listen to the likes of Malema (who has enough money to buy thousands of hectares of farm land) speak about land redistribution. Yet where are the voices of the landless?

When Helen Zille installs a prepaid water meter in her own home in front of dozens of cameras, she claims that if its good enough for her, then its good enough for Cape Town’s poor. Yet, for those who are the forced recipients of such meters and who end up begging their neighbour once their water is cut, where are the cameras?

The poor and landless have learned that they must burn tyres destroy roads to bring the cameras!

Yes! Something is surely amiss. Something is definitively upside-down. I ask myself: why am I writing this piece when I’m not even the author of the book I am here writing about? What was my role, really? I created space for an anthology to be published when such space should have, in the first place, existed! My role should not exist.

This is why we must all work to turn things right-side up.

Self-written histories such as No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way cannot be the only one of its kind in Post-1994 South Africa. The struggle for a true people’s history cannot end with the co-option of UDF affiliated civil society thereby making it the government’s history. Has there really be much change in the South African media since the ANC came to power? Voice was and still is the property of the corporation.

Perhaps the only difference nowadays is that the voices of poor black shackdwellers, instead of being ignored outright, are sometimes interviewed, analysed, and interpreted. But they’re always interviewed from a certain viewpoint, always analysed with specific agendas, always interpreted via specialised misinterpretations.

So when Conway tells us to “put your shoes into my shoes and wear me like a human being”, we’d better do as we’re told.

When Mina says “I am not stupid, you can rather kill me but I will never agree to something that I am not satisfied with,” we should not underestimate her resolve.

And when Jacqui writes “turn your ear to the poor hear them cry,” we must know that she has something important to say.

We cannot humanise our world through a vanguard media – as comradely as it may seemingly investigate society’s lack of humanity. To me, this is the ultimate lesson given by the 45 pavement dwellers who wrote this anthology.

Through Galeano again, we find that:

When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others.

And this is true in our case too. Our world, and the media industry that speaks for it, has shrunk the Pavement Dweller’s voice into a small, though beautiful, 160 page book. Yet we must not forget that they spoke in myriad other ways: through their occupations, their protests, and, of course, their unique little commune called Symphony Way that they built as they spent 21 months on an asphalt pavement opposite their N2 Gateway dream homes.

Jared Sacks is the compiler and supporting editor of No Land! No House! No Vote! Voices from Symphony Way as well as the Executive Director of Children of South Africa.





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