Genocide to freedom of speech and scholarship

SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 11 April 2019 - The book launch of Gangster State, Unravelling Ace Magashules web of capture takes place in Greenpoint. The author, Pieter-Louis Myburgh was interviewed by Media24s Editor, Adriaan Basson. Picture: Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)

During the month of April our country commemorates the lives of struggle icons like Chris Hani, Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, and Oliver Tambo who have fought for our hard-earned democracy. They did not do so merely to honour their allegiance to the liberation movement, they did so because of their love for social justice and freedom of speech. Our commemoration of this heroes of our freedom was rudely interrupted a week ago, when protestors stormed Sandton City Mall to disrupt a book launch.

What is even more shocking though is the deterioration of the Free State ANC Youth League which has vowed (in a statement) to burn copies of a book written by Peter-Louis Myburgh, entitled: Gangster State, which alleges corruption on the part of former FS Premier and ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule.

While the country was still trying to make sense of the shameful events which were aimed at destroying the investigative journalist’s contribution to the existing body of literature from which insight could be drawn on how to make the state function better in troubled provinces, like many we were struck by Magashule’s characterization of Myburgh as a “non-person”, a deeply problematic assertion riddled with glaring violence. Another person may interpret the “non-person” as a suggestion that Myburgh does not have a right to have dignity and live like any person in our country. That he is not supposed to enjoy freedom of speech. This spawns a question: whether the current developments (especially the attitude of both the FS ANCYL and Magashule) are not posing a threat to scholarship and intellectual discourse on corruption and good governance?

This question is asked because in the words of the English novelist George Orwell “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”. The FS ANCYL and Magashule also intend to obliterate facts as presented by Myburgh, thus erase them from the curtains of history in the same manner. 

18th century German Philosopher Karl Marx once made a statement which has ever since became a philosophical cliché for many scholars that have read his work “History repeats itself, the first as tragedy, then as farce”

Literature shows that books have been burned throughout history to conceal facts and falsify history. What was once identified in ancient history as the largest library in the whole world, the library of Alexandria, which was situated in northern Egypt burned down to ashes. This historic library is said to have been home to a plethora of intellectual work, written by poets laureate and great philosophers of those times. Although it is still a mystery as to who burned the Alexandria library, modern day philosophers in their imagination of what could have been contained in the shelves of this monumental structure to date rue the fire that gnawed the royal library.

There are more recent examples of events where books have been deliberately burned in well-orchestrated efforts to censor and obliterate alternative views which are not aligned with those of the authority. For example, the dangerous Nazi nationalism that saw the burning of books by the student union in the 1930s, books which were target for burning were those that represented subversive ideological paradigms which were seen to be antithetical to Nazism. The apartheid regime in South Africa is reported to have burned thousands and thousands of books between the 1950s and ‘80s. Rebecca Knuth in her seminal work, Burning Books and leveling libraries posits that “if a regime is racist, it destroys the books of groups deemed inferior; if nationalistic, the books of competing nations and cultures; and if religious extremist, all texts contradicting sacred doctrines”.

The rich knowledge and scholarly contributions especially from Egypt, Timbuktu and the Great Zimbabwe suffered in the hands of this detractors of knowledge. Whilst knowledge was destroyed, what followed was the atrocities and genocides of the masses of Africans, which later culminated into the rise of western civilization and coloniality that still haunts the native on the continent. We should therefore not take lightly the contemptuous attitude towards the habit of thinking and intellectual discourse displayed in our country today. This might bring debilitating consequences. Hence our question: are we not getting a signal for another genocide to scholarship and intellectual discourse?

Knuth’s statement has found new resonance in this current epoch, that: those who are involved in corruption and malfeasance, engages in censorship and the atrocious act of the burning of books. This much we have seen with Jacques Pauw’s book entitled, President’s Keepers which faced threats of being interdicted by then Commissioner of the South African Revenue Services (SARS), Mr Tom Moyane. By so doing, they become enemies of the freedom of expression.

Myburgh like many whistleblowers and journalists in our country should be protected, for theirs is about raising concerns about the wrongs that can be corrected in rebuilding the moral fibre of our movement that has suffered the nine years of political decay. All of us should be blamed for the decay, for in our silence or inaction we made the rot to permeate throughout the movement, until it ultimately found a park station in the state, where interests of private capital found refuge. We must not cultivate a culture where those that want to express their views are bullied into silence by the powers that be.

Amongst the elements that gives rise to kleptocracy is the inability and freewill of society to reflect on issues that can redirect the moral campus of the public leadership. There is a broader role that society must play in ensuring good governance. It can lead the infusion of utilitarian value system into our public leadership, and through this, behavior such as that of Magashule and FS ANCYL can be confronted by an abortive collective effort of our society.

Kgabo Morifi is a PhD candidate at the Tshwane University of Technology and the Tshwane District Secretary of the Young Communist League and Walter Matshwi is a Postgraduate Student at North West university and a District Committee member of the Young Communist League in Tshwane.