The Rise of South African Neo-Conservatism

By Jane Duncan · 6 Jul 2010

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Picture: Nude Art
Picture: Nude Art

In May, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, announced that he was pursuing the possibility of a complete ban on pornography distributed over the Internet and on cell phones. 

This emerged after Gigaba met with the Cape Town-based Justice Alliance of South Africa (JASA) to discuss a Bill they had drafted in support of such a ban, as well as a legal opinion on the constitutionality of the Bill. The head of another Cape Town-based organisation, Errol Naidoo, of the Family Policy Institute (FPI), a public policy think-tank, has claimed that the Institute requested JASA to draft the Bill.

The purpose of the draft Bill is “to make it illegal for Internet and mobile phone service providers in the Republic of South Africa to distribute or permit to be distributed pornography, so as to ensure protection for women and children.” The draft Bill will require tier one service providers to filter out pornography to prevent it from entering the country.

In the meeting, Gigaba reportedly briefed JASA about a request he had made to the Law Reform Commission to provide advice on the possibility of legislating against pornography. According to a press statement released by Gigaba’s office after the meeting, Gigaba was quoted as saying, “Cars are already provided with brakes and seatbelts…There is no reason why the Internet should be provided without the necessary restrictive mechanisms built into it.”

This is not the first time that an outright ban on pornography has been proposed. The idea has gathered momentum in official circles since 2006, when private television station was accused of purveying pornography in its late night weekend slots.

Why should we be concerned about attempts to censor what could be considered a fairly marginal form of expression, whose merits are dubious to say the least? Because there are bigger issues at stake in allowing organisations such as JASA and the FPI to get their way.

For one thing, the proposal flies in the face of one of the foundational values of democratic communication regulation, namely that adults should have a right to choose what they see, read or hear. If they choose to pollute their minds with smut, then it is their democratic right to do so.

Granted, many parents must be deeply concerned that new media makes pornography more accessible to their children. Yet there are less restrictive means of controlling access to pornography, such as filtering options. Also, a decision taken two weeks ago by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to establish a top level domain for sexually explicit sites, will make it much easier for parents to block out these sites as they merely need to block the .xxx domain.

While an attractive option on the surface, there are real dangers in allowing the state to play parent, as the dead hand of state censorship may not stop with pornography. 

Recent amendments to the Film and Publications Act are a case in point. While the Act was amended ostensibly to protect children against the harmful effects of pornography, in reality it now subjects many forms of controversial expression to pre-publication classification - and possible censorship - by a government agency (the Film and Publications Board). 

The definition of pornography referred to in the draft Bill is extremely broad. It fails to distinguish between porn and erotica, where the former eroticises domination while the latter involves the telling of stories with sexual content, often with artistic pretensions. It will also catch in its net matters of public interest that relate to sex, such as discussions about sexual abuse. In effect, it will criminalise any public display of sexuality, which will make an important aspect of human experience impossible to represent or even discuss.

It is hard not to conclude that the status quo has a vested interest in criminalising public debates about sex and its role in society. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women and children in the world, including sexual violence. As People Opposing Women Abuse has pointed out, this has much to do with the fact that many women live in housing or communal environments that place them at risk of violence. Furthermore, perpetrators often enjoy widespread immunity. Gay women are particularly high-risk targets for sexual violence.

By blaming pornography for sexual violence, the government can perform a sleight of hand, arguing that it is doing something about sexual violence, when it is, in fact, failing to address its root causes adequately.

Also, President Jacob Zuma’s outspoken views and practices as a polygamist, traditionalist and homophobe reinforce heterosexual orthodoxy. Far from protecting women and children, the banning of sexual expression from the public domain will allow sexual practices that disadvantage women to take place more easily, as they will be cloaked in a shroud of silence.

Recent events suggest that the authorities are quicker to label alternative sexualities as perverted, and their public expressions pornographic. A recent attempt by the Film and Publications Board to prohibit a film (called ‘XXY’) about the sexual awakening of an intersexed youth as child pornography, suggested that the authorities might be quicker to brand something pornographic, if its contents deviate from the heterosexual norm. The decision to prohibit the film was overturned on appeal.

Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana’s recent branding of photographs of naked, black women by prominent artist and gay activist Zanele Mohuli as pornographic, immoral and contrary to nation building, has also given us a taste of things to come if ‘pornography’ is prohibited.

Another problem with the proposal is that the freedom and integrity of the Internet will be undermined. It is not clear what form of censorship is being proposed, but it may well replicate the ‘great firewall of China’ - albeit on a smaller scale - where censorship takes place at the internet’s gateway to that country. China is hardly a model for South African digital media freedom; neither are the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, whose examples the government claims to be following in clamping down on pornography.

As pointed out by community media activist David Robert Lewis, more fundamentally, such censorship undermines the essential principle of ‘network neutrality’, where restrictions on the Internet are discouraged because they undermine the open and interconnected nature of the Internet. Gigaba’s analogy of cars and the Internet is deeply ignorant, as it betrays a dangerous lack of appreciation of this founding principle, as well as a lack of knowledge about the technical impossibility of censoring the Internet.

A technophobic thread is also apparent in JASA’s legal opinion, which refers to the Internet as a ‘wild West’ where the country’s laws are being circumvented by technological advancements associated with globalisation. The message is clear: new media are spreading moral decay and must be curbed.

It is worth considering who Gigaba is getting into bed with on this particular issue. According to JASA’s constitution, the organisation aims to uphold and develop Judeo-Christian values, and to this end has lobbied for restrictions on the right to abortion, on the basis that the current abortion law is too liberal.

The FPI – which also subscribes to Judeo-Christian views - describes itself as being “at the cutting edge of the culture war,” a metaphor used by American conservatives for a war of values between those who identify with traditional or conservative values and liberals.

Naidoo formed the FPI in the wake of what he described as the “tragic legalisation of same-sex marriages in South Africa.” Echoing the conservative agenda, the Institute upholds the heteronormative nuclear family as the foundation for society and government, and opposes pornography, homosexuality, abortion and prostitution. 

Naidoo's inspiration for the organisation came from the Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC), which he claims gave him ideas for the strategy and organisational structure. The Council was set up as a lobby group for conservative legislation, and has enjoyed significant support among Republican legislators.

Organisations such as the FRC assumed prominence in the US when the Christian right evolved from a social movement into an influential voting bloc for the Republican Party. During President George W. Bush's terms of office, neo-conservativism matured as a complimentary political philosophy to neoliberalism, as it provided a moral defence of capitalism. This defence involved the establishment of an international moral order to secure politically, economically and socially conservative values on the US' terms.

Conservative think tanks became more externally orientated; supporting the establishment of likeminded organisations in other parts of the world where liberal values were considered to hold sway. Barack Obama’s administration has not shifted paradigmatically from neo-conservative ideas, especially in relation to foreign policy.

It is clear that JASA and the FPI are Trojan horses for the neoconservative agenda. So why are such groups allowed to hold sway over public policy, if their objectives contradict so many of democratic South Africa’s foundational principles?

In relation to social policy, there seems to be an ideological convergence between South Africa's emerging neo-conservative movement and the Zuma administration. Zuma’s views on homosexuality, his statements promising debates on the death penalty and abortion and his courting of the Rhema church, have buoyed religious conservatives, and probably make them feel that they are on a winning ticket.

Furthermore, there are growing signs of the Zuma administration mobilising religion to tap into popular support from a largely Christian working class base -- the very base that may turn against him in the next elections if he fails to deliver.

Neo-conservatism must appeal to those in government who favour a strong authoritarian state, intent on regulating sexual desire and clamping down on the decadence of artists. It allows them to give the state a moral purpose - namely to enforce a moral code to ensure a virtuous citizenry – while downplaying its purpose as a redistributive agent on a more material level.

Yet as a free-market ideology, neo-conservatism does not favour an interventionist state on equality questions. It depoliticises social problems, attributing inequality to personal laziness rather than structural factors. It is no doubt an appealing argument for South Africa's burgeoning tenderpreneurial class.

Much has been made of the South African government's openness to US-driven neoliberal economic policies, and the ways in which these policies have exacerbated poverty and inequality. But the significance of the current administration’s openness to neo-conservative social policies is ill understood.

Neoliberalism and neo-conservatism create new political rationalities and subjectivities. Leaders can – in the words of American author Thomas Frank – 'talk Christ but walk corporate' and get away with it.

South Africans must have a basis to feel that there is meaning to life, and that life has a moral purpose. Otherwise many may be lost to an ideology that reverses even the moderate gains that have been made since 1994. If conservative social impulses coalesce into a political programme, it could gain popular support and lead to a shift to the right in our national politics.

If this happens, society will probably be de-democratised, the position of women may become worse, and censorship and attacks against gays and immigrants may increase.

The apartheid era morality police lost their grip on state power in 1994. For the sake of our future, the new morality police must be stopped in their tracks.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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9 Jul


Government + religion = yet another reason to leave this country. What's next? Creationism as a school subject???

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12 Jul

This is Incredibly Important

This kind of paternalistic fascism - always masquerading itself as "protecting the children", like a good cancer - must be opposed vehemently. It inevitably leads to damaging the exchange of ideas, inhibiting the development of new ideas, causes society to turn on itself and spend far too many resources on policing something that should not be policed.

As this article points out, once you start deciding what others do consensually and privately is Wrong, the process of control spreads, inevitably resulting in fascism.
Great article.

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13 Jul

Unbelievable Debates

It is unbelievable that there is even a debate about this, we all grew up without all these pornographic cellphone displays or internet porn displays and yet we don't lack creativity, respect for democracy etc. Why should there be a fight about whether or not our kids grow up with porn etc or not? Its obvious what we should decide. I wonder what the children think especially the children of these people who are advocating pornography. Unbelievable.

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Mark Wilson
14 Jul

Good Stuff...Let's Clean Up this World We Live In

Thanks for sharing your view. Like many others, I don't agree with your view. I think this world would be a much better place if we took steps to clean it up.

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14 Jul

Fair Article, Good Points and Weak Ones As Well

It once again shows that our ethics/morality is lagging far behind our societal advancements (industrial, technological, psychological, information, etc.).

Just because we can do something, should we? (Jurassic Park movies challenged me with this question)

Freedom of speech is of utmost importance but not at the expense of becoming civilized animals driven by supposed "primal" instincts that cannot differentiate between what is beneficial and what is harmful.

After all, we know that we received/developed our values and morality as we journeyed from the primordial soup to the amoeba to the amphibian etc. until where we are now - homo sapiens. So then freedom of speech should trump decency, morality, ethics, etc. Hello! - after all, we do live in a relativistic postmodern era where truth is very subjective and adhered to for convenience.

We have moved from the puritan era where sex (whether natural or deviant in practice) was a taboo topic to discuss or disclose to our postmodern dispensation where we all vomit our filth on each other because of the relief it brings us. No more suppression thanks to our Freudian pseudo-psychology! We are all free to cover each other in our vomit in the name of our new found god "FREEDOM"

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