Tuesday, February 02, 2010

This Sachs

Albie Sachs, formerly of the South African Constitutional Court and living legend (he was an anti-apartheid activism whose arm was blown off in a car bomb) came to speak at the law school today. The theme was on "humor", specifically, on humor as a tool for the marginalized to bring down the powerful. Justice Sachs wished to distinguish this useful and important act from the cruel and impermissible use of humor by the already powerful to denigrate and put down the powerless (recall that South Africa is not absolutist about free speech, and explicitly bars hate speech).

Using the example of the recent tensions between COSATU and parts of the South African Jewish community, I asked if this standard didn't just shift the debate into a question of who counted as "powerful" and who counted as "powerless". This seemed to be what is going on with regards to the COSATU controversy: the Jews note that they number around 70,000 to COSATU's 1.9 million (and key role in the governing coalition), as well as the historical discrimination faced by Jews worldwide. COSATU and its allies respond that it is not attacking a beleaguered minority at all, but rather a powerful Zionist coalition whose tendrils control much of the West, and that it is in fact speaking out on behalf of the powerless third world and Palestinians. Both sides claim the mantle of the powerless. Was this sort of controversy, I asked, intractable under the framework he was putting forward?

Alas, trying to provide the context, I somewhat butchered the question, and Justice Sachs demurred from answering. He thought I was referring to the Fatima Hajaig case, which never reached a court of law (it was resolved by apology ... eventually), and thus it was not an issue of "law". The more recent Bongani Masuku case, by contrast, resulted in a hate speech ruling by the SAHRC and does appear to be court-bound (of course, the examples I gave was just to contextualize -- I think the question is still valid and comprehensible even if in particular instances the dispute doesn't reach the courtroom. But I can understand how the way I framed it made it sound as if I was looking for comment on the specific controversy, not the broader principle).

Anyway, that's how I blew my chance at getting an answer from an iconic South African figure about a question that's been vexing me for months. Oops.

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