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Students are shown at Stanford University in Stanford, California, US. Picture: 123RF
Students are shown at Stanford University in Stanford, California, US. Picture: 123RF

The reverberations caused by Stanford Law School professor Tirien Steinbach’s comments in response to the disruption of conservative judge Stuart Kyle Duncan’s visit to the university earlier in the year is cause for reflection on the meaning of free speech.

This especially so for those of us who live in highly polarised environments such as SA. In our attempts to strive for authentic free speech unencumbered by the intersectionality of our identities or downright forms of censorship, can we meet that with which we strongly disagree, with more speech and clarification without passing value judgments? 

Can our modes of communication, especially those carried out in privileged spaces such as parliament, be geared towards de-escalating tensions caused by differences and getting us to look past conflict and see each other as people?

Can we at least acknowledge each other and accept our diversity and seek common ground? Can we give voice to our values by engaging in respectful dialogue that is robust, without first appealing to our different identities? We should accept that free speech is not easy, but it is a fundamental tenet of a working democracy. 

When Steinbach asked the arresting question: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” referring to the responsibility that comes with freedom of speech: “to consider not only the benefit of our words but also the consequences”, it struck a raw nerve in me as an individual living in what seems like a stunted democratic project.

Steinbach clarified: “I believe that we would be better served by leaders who ask themselves, “Is the juice [what we are doing] worth the squeeze [the intended and unintended consequences and costs]?”

Mzansi is fraught with unmet expectations, with people who are justifiably unhappy about the way things are. They are looking for someone to be held accountable, but in the process often reduce these legitimate claims to name-calling and fury instead of thoughtful conversations that could help us find common ground. 

The lie of the land

For instance, the primacy of the issue of land in the minds and expectations of those who were previously dispossessed of this basic requirement in life cannot be over-emphasised. In fact, I believe it ranks higher than the Bill of Rights contained in the constitution in the understanding of the majority of South Africans. 

Thus, the murky narrative of taking land without compensation is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing in real life. It ignores the basic requirement of not only defining land ownership but also the complex nuances of land ownership in SA, given that the original dispossession was supported by the state through legislation and rule by fiat.

Is it land for its own sake, or for the productive use of land that restores stability and dignity to the previously downtrodden? How do you systematically define a process of distributing land held by the state and tribal authorities that might be underutilised or totally unproductive? The issue in its essence is neutral to the intersectionality of class, race and gender.

However, without clarity, the proposal drifts to the intersectionality of race and continues a divisive discourse without thoughtful consideration of the intended and unintended consequences and costs. The consequences range from the reappraisal of our assets by international markets and an escalated rating of SA’s geopolitical risk from foreign and local investors.

Can we hold this conversation without the EFF, for instance, insisting on the intersectionality of race and therefore not adducing the legitimate truth that the maldistribution of land, however that is defined, constrains the productivity of both individuals and SA’s macro-economy? Truth is independent of the intersectionality of our primary identities.

Empowerment or bridesmaids? 

On a different tack, it is easy to summarily dismiss BBBEE (BEE) without engaging in a deep progressive discourse that says it is right to enable, but enablement should not create bridesmaids, as the process has continued to do. What is it in its foundation that makes even some of the wealthiest of BEE beneficiaries perpetual dependents on white-owned business? Afrikaner business was enabled for a considerable time and converted enablement into independent origination through the power of office, namely the state.

When ActionSA’s leader issued a broad statement on how it would scrap the ANC’s BEE policy he was hopefully meaning its flawed implementation and the resultant process of empowering those who are already empowered rather than individuals who are genuinely disadvantaged, trapped by their limited access to capital and opportunities. The policy still has the potential to support the international trend of building niche-based enterprises and boutique operations in service industries among SA operations. 

ActionSA must accept that entrepreneurs come in many different shapes and sizes and with distinct characteristics, and the SA economy needs them all. Innovative entrepreneurs who bring new products and processes to market and introduce new services, marketing techniques or business structures, and replicative entrepreneurs who enter existing markets with unique selling propositions. What is unacceptable is the wealth accruing to individuals whose speciality is brokering power and are forever bridesmaids of those who are originating and providing answers to the challenges of the SA economy. 

Given the contraction of the SA economy there will be a preponderance of opportunity in the small to medium-size businesses, and genuine BEE practice would enable most of these to contribute to a growing economy. It is therefore unfair of the billionaire to think that most people are entrepreneurial and would easily find niches without the enabling policies of economic empowerment.

The doors of learning

The Fees Must Fall protests that engulfed the nation raised an uncomfortable multilayered conversation that we glibly passed through. Are academic exclusions a function of lack of affordability alone, or are there other factors such as incessant failure to meet academic entry requirements? What is the comparison between the cost of failure and funding free tertiary education? This is also multilayered in that lecturers might have to repeat preliminary work to compensate for gaps that might be a function of background, and that is an intangible cost. 

Is the juice worth the squeeze as far as the preparation of students to enter university is concerned? Or is it reflective of the intersectionality of class in that some students come from private schools while others hail from impoverished state schools? What is the benefit of amalgamating academic universities with the old technikons, which were biased towards practicality and less theoretical academic training?

A nurse with a BSc degree might appear great in light of the Victorian idea of education, but may not hold a candle against the practically trained nurse from the previous training regimes. At the core of this lies the most uncomfortable conversation of all: what is the intention of education if it is not relevant to the solutions required in real life? The unintended consequences and cost of the change that was effected through this amalgamation are like chickens coming home to roost. 

The reality is that hard-earned free speech is muted by layers of political correctness, as opposed to holding genuine conversations that are reflective of our values in an ethical manner. The chairperson of the EFF, who expected a huge turnout for the protest against load-shedding asked whether white South Africans hated Julius Malema more than they hated load-shedding. The answer lies in the intended disruption not clearing the conversation of partisan viewpoints and isolating the issue on its own merit. The issue was not the intersectionality of race, but unclear presentation of the relationship between the intended action and the consequences and costs of its outcomes. 

The huge common ground among the citizens of SA is diminished by the adoption of partisan viewpoints and interposing the intersectionality of our identities in simple, practical day-to-day conversations. We have to stop blaming, start listening, and ask ourselves: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” For the sake of this nation and future generations we must commit ourselves as citizens, particularly as leaders, to de-escalate the divisive discourse and allow thoughtful conversations to take place in the bid to find common ground.

Genuine free speech requires thought about the benefit of our words and conversations, as well as the intended and unintended consequences thereof. 

• Thabe is CEO of Angavu Ethical Solutions.

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