Espousing A Strange Perspective On Freedom - Pretoria News

16 August 2018 - A commitment to real freedom means an acceptance of the freedom for things with which one disagrees.

Terence Corrigan

A demonstration is hardly unusual in South Africa. On the contrary, it is a part of our political culture. Invoking images of such seminal moments of the country’s past as the defiance campaign, the Women’s March on the Union Buildings and the mass protests of the 1980s, it is something that resonates powerfully with our history.

More than that, it is recognised in the constitution: ‘Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.’

South Africa can be proud of this. The right to demonstrate is a key signifier of democratic freedom. It is a visible means by which ordinary people can assert their viewpoints, vent their passions, and challenge those in authority. And to their credit, leaders in government and senior police officers have repeatedly affirmed the rights of South Africans to do so.

One site at which this is celebrated is Freedom Park. A heritage complex in Tshwane, it defines itself as a place where ‘the nation’s heroes would be honoured and the complex story of South Africa and its people would be told.’ It is hard to imagine this without reference to a heady narrative of challenge and confrontation – demonstrations – of which these people were a part. Indeed, references to this narrative are richly distributed throughout its website and literature.

Moreover, Freedom Park lists as its values a tolerance of diversity; inclusivity; trust; transparency; and accountability. These are quite appropriate; they are values that fit naturally around a free society. And they dovetail with the institution’s celebration of protest and challenge. For if a society cannot tolerate a diversity of views, and the rights of its citizens to hold them, to advocate for them and to demonstrate for them, then the quality of ‘freedom’ is questionable.

And so it was surprising that over the past few weeks Freedom Park found itself embroiled in a controversy over the expression of just such freedom.

At issue was a request by a coalition of pro-Israel Christian groups, who had intended to meet at Freedom Park, pray and then proceed to the Union Buildings to deliver a petition calling for relations with Israel to be maintained. This was, in effect, a demonstration against downgrading the relationship, as had been called for in a resolution adopted by the African National Congress at its national conference last year.

Subsequently, the South African ambassador to Israel was recalled, although it’s questionable whether this amounts to a comprehensive ‘downgrade’. South Africa seems – at the moment – still to term its presence in Israel an ‘embassy’.

This is a matter of profound importance – to say nothing of high emotion – to a great many South Africans. And there are numerous drivers and dynamics. Questions of geopolitics, assessments of how best South Africa’s interests can be served, of religious and ethnic identification and of the perceived religious significance of current events all play a role. These animate a range of positions, a true ‘diversity’ of views, which are free to compete with one another for support among the public.

Freedom Park’s view on this is strange to say the least. Explaining to the organisers why it declined to host the event, it referred – in somewhat clumsy wording – to its ‘policy’:

‘Clause 7.3, Freedom Park reserves the [right] to refuse an event which contradicts its fundamental principles of nation-building, social cohesion, reconciliation and environmental integrity

Clause 7.4, further states Freedom Park shall remain a public institution, as such it will not host events that provide a platform for political campaigns and gatherings during election periods and to the adherence by Government decisions.

Please note that Freedom Park is an agency of Government and Government has taken a formal decision regarding Israel, hence we have to abide by Governments decision.’

It’s unclear just how this event would have offended its first clause. It was no political campaign during an election season. It propounded a point of view that its opponents may have found unpalatable, but that hardly threatened national building, social cohesion or the rest. Rather, that would have been squarely within the bounds of democracy, or – in the eponym of the venue – ‘freedom’.

Indeed, it has been argued that nation building and social cohesion could be threatened by downgrading links to Israel. Last year, Thoko Makwanazi-Xaluva of the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities said that a downgrade of relations between Israel and South Africa would undermine the rights of Jews to practice their culture – which in her estimation might make it unconstitutional. Certainly, actions that undermine a community’s ability to live its culture are likely to alienate it from the larger society…

The second clause cited is more deeply problematic. It seems to suggest that Freedom Park will not host events that challenge government decisions. (Though since relations do not appear formally to have been ‘downgraded’, it seems that the protestors were really asking for little more than retaining the status quo.) Perhaps this is a constraint under which the staff at the institution must operate. But this is a stricture that contradicts the entire spirit of South Africa’s democratic culture. It makes a mockery of freedom. It welcomes the exercise of freedom – provided it follows the official line. This is a ‘freedom’ gutted of substance, scornful of diversity, unworthy of the name.

It calls to mind nothing so much as the American intellectual (and opponent of Israel) Noam Chomsky’s observation about free speech: tyrants are in favour of free speech for messages with which they are in sympathy. A commitment to real freedom means an acceptance of the freedom for things with which one disagrees. Or as the legal scholar Alan Dershowitz has put it: ‘Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent.’

It was not only a group of Israel’s supporters who lost something when an institution nominally committed to freedom turned them away. South Africa as a whole did, too – and that includes Israel’s critics. For in so doing Freedom Park betrayed (or was required to betray) the ideals for which it was established. If it is hemmed in by the currents of government policy, let it at least be candid and alter its name. Heritage Park perhaps. But freedom is too valuable to have its name denuded of meaning.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations sending an SMS to 32823.