SOUTH AFRICA like most Western countries has a shameful history of blasphemy legislation associated with Judeo-Christian strictures on ‘invoking the lord’s name in vain’, prohibitions on satirising of the crucifixion and the retelling of biblical stories in any manner not condoned by the Church. Blasphemy laws came to an end when the country adopted a secular, “We the People”, constitution.
For at least two decades following the signing into law of the constitution by Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996, South African institutions (bar one or two exceptions) have been reluctant to push anything resembling a theological point of view, and there are a number of key legal precedents in this regard.
The emergence of a powerful (and often violent), religious lobby group on the nation’s campuses has however, seen secularists and those accused of blasphemy on the backfoot. In a statement released to the press, over the weekend, the University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price revoked an invitation issued by the Academic Freedom Committee to Flemming Rose last year. Rose apparently had been set to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture on Academic Freedom.
Rose is the cultural editor of the Danish magazine, Jyllands Posten. In 2005, he solicited and published a series of cartoons apparently “depicting the Prophet Mohammed”. The publication of the cartoons “generated extensive debate and controversy globally, regarding freedom of speech, blasphemy, and Islamophobia”, and was “also accompanied by public protests, riots and even loss of life. Most print media around the world refused to re-publish them.”
It is not the purpose of this piece to examine the Rose controversy, other than to state the case below, against blasphemy.
Previously under apartheid, a despotic regime banned sex across the colour line, placed stars on women’s nipples and forced anti-apartheid activists into hiding, theocrats were in power and religion was used to justify a war on the border. Clerics, theologians and especially the dominees of the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), preached what was then known as the ‘heresy of apartheid’ involving racism of a special type, the battle of blood river and the ideology of separate but equal.
Thus in 1988 the Botha government, at the behest of the NGK, banned ‘The last temptation of Christ‘, a film directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film depicts Jesus as a mere mortal as opposed to the divine rendition of him found in the Bible.
It is worth mentioning a similar incident in the United Kingdom, namely Whitehouse v Lemon, involving a poem by James Kirkup published by Gay News, entitled: The Love that Dare’s to Speak its Name and for which the publishers received jail sentences.”The indictment described the offending publication as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion”.
In 1989 the South African censorship authorities banned Kalahari Surfer’s album Bigger Than Jesus, due to concerns about the title and a song “Gutted With The Glory”‘s use of the Lord’s Prayer, which they deemed “abhorrent and hurtful”.
Later after the collapse of apartheid, and under a democratic government, the music was unbanned and Scorsese film, along with all its homo-erotic and profane overtones, was permitted to be broadcast in 2008.
Likewise, in 1988 Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was banned by an apartheid government, but later in 2002 under the government of Thabo Mbeki, the novel was unbanned. The Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa had earlier heard a complaint (in the same year) against MNET after the screening of the film Reservoir Dogs. “The Complainant, who is the moderator of the South Hills Evangelical Church, lodged a complaint with [the Commission]. The complaint was, in the main, directed at the taking in vain of the Lord’s Name by the characters in this film in the form of “Jesus Christ” and other forms.”
The complaint was not upheld.
Which leads us to the present moment in which SABC censors are once again censoring news stories in a manner reminiscent of the apartheid state, and where ICASA has issued a firm directive against SABC policy. Can one expect to see similar directives issued perhaps by the Minister of Education, countermanding the latest actions by the Vice-Chancellor of UCT? It all depends upon whose definition of secularism one uses, whether the previous claims by the apartheid regime hold any stock, and whether or not our current democratic government is serious about the rights vested in our Constitution.
SEE: How Free is UCT?