Following the recent controversy surrounding the mob-like retaliation to Gangster State – the explosive book by Pieter-Louis Myburgh about ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and his alleged links to state capture in the Free State – Wordfest 2019 invited former head of the Film and Publications Board (FPB), Doctor Nana Makaula-Ntsebeza, to deliver this year’s Dalro lecture and share her thoughts on censorship under the new government.
In South Africa, a country with at least 35 indigenous languages and countless interpretations of religion and culture, the opportunities afforded through freedom of expression is something many of us tend to take for granted since its introduction alongside the dawn of democracy.
For those unfamiliar with the Constitution of South Africa, this is what Section 16 of Chapter Two says regarding the freedom of expression:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”
Of course, with everything, there are limitations, intended to safeguard our democratic society:
“The right in subsection (1) does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm…”
But while these words have been hardwired in the law that governs us, Section 16’s fundamental values can be misinterpreted, and we find ourselves having to challenge the conservative decisions made by the very people who are supposed to be guardians of the constitution.
What does it mean to censor? This question was answered in many ways by Makaula-Ntsebeza during her lecture To Ban and to Burn in Grahamstown on Saturday, 29 June 2019, but a definition always helps:
“Censorship is the withholding, destroying and haltering of artistic information by those in authority,” Makaula-Ntsebeza explained to the audience. “The underlying belief is that not everyone is sophisticated enough to deal with the material from which they should be protected. Put differently, the assumption is not everyone has the maturity to make sense of uncensored material, young and old.”
Just as censorship differs from dining room to dining room, so it differs from country to country – and in South Africa, with our unique mix of race, religion, language and culture, long has the practice of censorship reared its ugly head in some form or another to satisfy the conservative views of those in power.
As many as 26 000 books were banned between 1950 and 1990, with burning orders extended to the books by people whose views were not supposed to be heard. But as much as the apartheid government is notorious for banning and burning truckloads of books in an effort to curb the influence of anyone trying to speak up against the government, censorship in our youngish democracy has found a new form under the guise ‘classification’.
“By law, censorship is not allowed (in the new South Africa). What the Film and Publications Board I helped to setup does is to classify film material. Films are classified for age appropriateness using norms which are published for public review before they are used,” Makaula-Ntsebeza explained. “The main purpose of classification is to give the consumer, parents especially, information about each and every film classified by the board. The classification normally outlines what is in the film in terms of the story line and in terms of classifiable elements like violence, sex and language.
“The information is given to empower parents to make informed decisions about what they want their children to see or not to see.”
But while critics of classification argue that censorship is censorship by any other means, Makaula-Ntsebeza pointed out that what critics do not appreciate is that “where the classification board strays into censorship, they can be challenged and our courts have proved that they jealously guard the freedom of speech”.
To prove her point, Makaula-Ntsebeza touched on some of the most recent examples of misclassification in South Africa:
- 2004: XXY, an Argentinian film which depicts simulated sex between two actors ‘younger than 18’, is banned outright by the FPB. After the FPB is taken to court, The Review Board overturns the decision, making a point that the movie, which tells the story of a 15-year-old intersex person, shares the profound message of the tragic consequences premature decisions made at the can result in for the child as they mature.
- 2012: Brett Murray’s painting The Spear, which depicts our former president, Jacob Zuma, in a Lenin-inspired pose with his genitals exposed, is condemned by the African National Congress (ANC). The party calls on their followers to boycott anyone who supports the image, and the painting is eventually defaced. The FPB originally gave the painting a 16N rating, but is later reprimanded by the Appeal Tribunal as, by law, the painting is not considered pornography.
- 2013: The FPB bans another movie, this time the South African romantic thriller film, Of Good Report. Directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, again the ban is on the basis that the move features “child pornography” as it shows a simulated oral sex scene between two actors who remain fully clothed, one of whom is portrayed as being younger than 18. This decision is later overturned after an appeal by the producers of the film.
- 2018: The critically acclaimed Inxeba is initially given a 16LS rating by the FPB. However, following complaints from by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa and other cultural and Christian organisations, the FPB’s Appeal Tribunal reclassifies the film as X18SNLVP, a rating reserved for hardcore pornography. FPB classifiers themselves conclude that the Appeal Tribunal’s rating amounts to unlawful censorship based on homophobia and the ban is lifted by the Pretoria High Court.
Makaula-Ntsebeza then went on to explain her own experience with the sticky controversy of classification through the 1998 case involving the late Grahamstown artist, Mark Hipper. Then deputy home affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu during a live interview called for the artwork, which consisted of linework that explored child sexuality, to be banned, sparking a national outrage during a time when the government was in the process of unbanning things. Makaula-Ntsebeza accused Sisulu of political interference, old-order policies and of embarrassing the board.
Thank the high heavens the law trumps conservative ideas, amiright?
While the Film and Publication board might sometimes get it very wrong depending on who’s apllying the pressure, it’s important to realise that South Africans have the space to be vigilant and challenge any decisions that do not fit with the freedom of expression.
Following her engaging speech, Makaula-Ntsebeza called for any questions from the audience which sparked further debate around Inxeba, the banning of discriminatory words and how to effectively communicate with your children when introduced to displays of naked women or Mavericks banners in the sky.
Click below to read more on those debates:
You can watch the full lecture below: