NEWS
23/03/2017 14:57 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 15:48 GMT

Why Ferial Haffajee Is Wrong On Helen Zille — Pierre De Vos

Freedom of speech doesn't exempt a person from having to face the consequences of saying something offensive, such as being fired.

Gallo Images / The Times / David Harrison
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille

Ferial Haffajee, you're wrong on Helen Zille, says Professor Pierre de Vos, but that doesn't mean that Zille is right either.

On Thursday, De Vos finally weighed in on the public debate over those colonialism tweets by Zille, the Democratic Alliance's former leader and current Western Cape Premier.

De Vos' column "On Helen Zille, Colonialism and 'Free Speech': Responding to Ferial Haffajee" on his blog outlines his view.

"When somebody expresses unpopular, shockingly bigoted or other incendiary views on social media or elsewhere and the inevitable backlash follows, there are always people who caution that the resultant outcry threatens the freedom of expression of the wrongdoer. The same thing happened after Helen Zille tweeted about her admiration for aspects of colonialism. The problem is that this argument is based on a rather crude and uninformed view of the nature of free speech in a democracy," wrote De Vos.

Here are those tweets and the Huffington Post South Africa's view of them on the day: unimpressed.

This is Haffajee's column: "Why Helen Zille Should Not Be Fired". Haffajee argued that "Zille's colonial tweets were one of the most stupid things I've read from a politician (and the competition's tough), but I don't think she should be fired for them".

De Vos doesn't think much of Zille's tweets either, calling them "clearly irrational, literally making no sense to me, as they are premised on the untenable (racist) assumption that colonised countries would not have developed without being colonised and exploited". But he argues that the right to freedom of speech does not excuse a person from having to face appropriate consequences for what they say.

De Vos' lengthy blog piece makes a number of points around hate speech, free speech and censorship.

He points out that criticising Zille over the tweets or firing her is not censorship as it's not limiting her right to speak.

"Neither the criticism (nor any move to fire her) would prohibit her from continuing to express her views forcefully on all the platforms that her social status and political position give her access to. (Even if she is fired she will draw a handsome pension, so she is not economically dependent on her job.)

"No law limits her ability to speak," he said.

"No one has an absolute right to say exactly what they wish without facing criticism or adverse consequences as a result of that speech. Even at a university where academics enjoy a considerable amount of freedom to say what we want (which is very different from a political party with its party discipline and rigid rules), I cannot imagine there will not be consequences if I started telling my students that the Holocaust was an excellent solution for a serious problem which only dear Adolf knew how to address properly."

De Vos said that Zille has "continued to dig herself deeper and deeper into her own political grave by 'explaining' and 'justifying' her tweets. The criticism and the threat of firing has had no effect on her ability and willingness to speak (and speak, and speak, and speak). In fact, it has elicited a torrent of words from her mouth and pen."

De Vos also said that some ideas are "so loathsome, harmful or dangerous" that there is nothing wrong with "harshly and persistently criticising, mocking and ridiculing" them to overcome them.