Blog from Cape Town

Table Mountain, such a powerful presence in Cape Town’s city centre on a clear day, is completely shrouded in cloud this morning. The noise drifting through the 11th floor hotel window is of car tyres splashing over wet tarmac. Beneath the dark skies and the brooding mountain, the city squats in the folds of the valley and the bay, its buildings rather sternly functional, save for the occasional moment of slightly tired wedding cake colonialism.

Whether or not it is raining, the mood in Cape Town, to an outsider at least, is of a city still trying to express its identity for the 21st century. Perched as it is on the edge of a vast continent, and also at the meeting point of two enormous oceans, it is clear that the city has for centuries occupied a strategically vital place in the world, a location exploited by people who understood that by controlling it they would also control a key international trading route. It’s not a surprise to learn that it was the Dutch East India Company which in 1666 started construction of theCastle ofGood Hope, a building said to be the oldest inSouth Africa. That strategic importance has probably diminished somewhat in the new era of digital trading, but it still feels crucial to Cape Town’s sense of itself. Alongside the colonial activity, there is also the legacy of apartheid, a policy and a period of history that remains much talked-about in the literary festival events I have attended here. Perhaps apartheid was the last gasp of colonialism inSouth Africa and perhaps it is officially dead, but you only have to drive through the outskirts of Cape Town past the largetownship of Khayelitsha, to see the scale of the task facing the government in trying to even out inequalities created over the centuries. Still the home to some half a million people, Khayelitsha is a mixture of small shacks and badly-built brick constructions with the minimum of civic infrastructure in between. No doubt many of its inhabitants take the bus into Cape Town’s centre each morning for work. And without a doubt, economic apartheid is still a reality.

Right opposite the hotel, one of the less ostentatious colonial buildings backing onto the Magistrates’ Court has signs outside in English and Afrikaans: Department of Correctional Services. In and out comes a steady trickle of young men who look as though they might be on probation for petty crimes. I think about Edinburgh’s law courts, and wonder what a skewed impression you’d get of the city if you looked out at it from a hotel room, but nevertheless it strikes me that in an unfamiliar country or city one is constantly on the lookout for confirmation of that society’s rules. Is jaywalking permitted? Do I give a tip to hotel porters? Is it OK to walk through the city late at night without fear of being mugged? Here inSouth Africa, there is evidence that people don’t feel all that safe: there is plenty of barbed wire around suburban gardens, and signs on urban buildings saying ‘ADT – Armed Response’.

What are the societal codes that make it possible for us to operate normally, to leave our house without fear each morning? Many of them are unspoken but ultimately our sense of ‘freedom’ requires that we operate within a system of agreed rules and control. I look up the news back in theUKand read about someone who’s been arrested inManchesterfor setting up a Facebook page celebrating the man charged with murdering two police officers. I notice the discussion about the princess who inadvertently exposed her breasts to the French paparazzi. In the UK at least, the mood in the press is clear: the photos of the Duchess of Cambridge should not be published, and the offensive Facebook page was rightly taken down. These wrongdoers’ freedoms have been curtailed in order to protect our own broader ones. But would we describe the use of the law in these instances as censorship, or something else?

I turn to a story about the international protests against cartoons in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and against a YouTube film mocking Islam.Egypt’s Grand Mufti is one of many people arguing that these are foolhardy acts of bravado, ‘asserting the superiority of western freedoms over alleged Muslim closed-mindedness’ and that they verge on incitement to violence. Indeed, so concerned are governments around the world by this that they have issued a statement: ‘We condemn any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility and violence. While fully recognising freedom of expression, we believe in the importance of respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to.’ In the midst of all this it seems there’s a new death threat from an Iranian cleric against Salman Rushdie following this week’s publication of his memoir.

Against this backdrop, we are staging a Writers’ Conference asking what purpose novels serve in the 21st century. Last night’s discussion on ‘Censorship Today’ seemed particularly apt, and perhaps not surprisingly it was dominated by an unspoken agreement that censorship is a bad thing – something perpetrated by authoritarian regimes (or anxious parents) intent on preventing people from exposure to the truth.

It was a fascinating discussion in which participants questioned the extent to which novels might change the way we think or behave. Most seemed to believe that exposing teenagers to stories about sex or drugs wouldn’t be enough to make them go straight out and lose their virginity, or reach for a syringe. Yet all of the news stories I’ve just been reading are essentially about people believing that words, images or ideas DO have sufficient power to change behaviour. One of the audience members last night talked about the French writer Richard Millet, whose essay ‘The Literary Elegy of Anders Breivik’ has claimed that with Breivik’s acts of murder, Norway‘got what it deserved.’ This morning I look up the story to discover that the French essayist’s stance has generated huge debate in France, with another author, Annie Ernaux, telling Le Monde that Millet’s writing is ‘a dangerous political act’.

I begin to wonder whether our passion for the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ has led us to overlook some other sides of the story. In the process of standing up for free speech, the word ‘censorship’ has gained purely negative connotations. Yet, if words are capable of having as much power as guns, are we taking a risk by relinquishing all control over them? Most of the people in last night’s debate who were arguing so passionately for free speech, would – I guess – be vehemently opposed to the liberalising of gun laws in the USA.

At a time when tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims appear to be on the rise around the world, surely it is time for us to be responsible about what we say. Words, like guns, have become part of a globalised network, in which ideas as well as products are exchanged. Since much of this network lies outside the legal frameworks of national government, is it not time for us to balance our freedom to believe whatever we like, with a responsibility to avoid bloodshed if we can, by limiting what we choose to say? Is it not time for us to promote respect for other people’s beliefs, and to insist that there are times when those advocating intolerance, or worse, should not be given a voice? This is not such an authoritarian position as it might sound: indeed we already have a system operating on the comments forums of newspaper websites in which inappropriate postings are removed – censored – by a moderator.

Now that it is possible to write hurtful or hateful words and send them across the world at the touch of a button to people we do not know, we need to rethink our relationship to freedom of speech. Maybe it’s time to refine our ideas, perhaps even a new 21st century phrase to replace ‘censorship’, to explain why the use of words should also be subject to agreed codes of behaviour.

That said, many of the writers appearing in South Africa’s new literary festival can still remember a time when they and their friends were jailed for the things they wrote or said. The crime writer Margie Orford, for example, tells me that she was thrown in prison in 1985 and interrogated for taking part in a fairly innocuous student protest against PW Botha’s state of emergency. In a country in which free speech was brutally denied to so many, anything remotely resembling state censorship would be a repellent notion. But eighteen years after the people of South Africa bravely ended the oppressive nightmare of apartheid, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has today been moved by what he calls the ‘disgraceful, shameless’ anti-Islam movie, to claim that freedom of speech has its limits. Is it too much to imagine an addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that encourages responsibility, respect and restraint?


Nick Barley, 21st September 2012