Blade, the SACP and the idea of respect

by The Editor

RespectFEATURE: The idea of ‘respect’ is one profoundly misunderstood in South Africa. Not just misunderstood, however, but deliberately misused as a euphemism for deference, in order to give the demand of respect a more acceptable veneer. Leading the charge in this respect is Blade Nzimande and the SACP and a recent exchange between Nzimande and a caller on radio is as revealing in this regard as it is disturbing. So it is worth unpacking the idea in a bit more detail in order to better understand that underlying all these various calls for respect is a deeply authoritarian impulse and the abdication of personal responsibility.

Blade, the SACP and the idea of respect

By: Gareth van Onselen

14 January 2013


Here follows the Oxford English Dictionary definition for two words:

Respect: “Feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their qualities or achievements.”

Deference: “Polite submission and respect.”

Synonyms for respect include: admiration, esteem, veneration, regard and reverence; synonyms for deference: obsequiousness, submissiveness and ingratiate. In brief, respect is an authentic attitude, engendered and given freely; deference, in contrast, is inauthentic, something relinquished, an act of submission.

Respect demands something – an achievement or a quality – in order for it to be given. Deference, however, does not. It is the forgoing of that necessity – a ‘submission’ as the OED puts it – and the requirement that respect be given for reasons other for the achievements or qualities of an individual, rather out of politeness or, often, fear in the face of authority.

This argument will make the case that, in South Africa, many use the word respect when, in fact, they mean deference. Their confusion is profound and the implications potentially significant; especially when one considers the recent proposal that ‘respect’ – particularly respect for the President – be legislated for.

Before exploring this difference in more detail, it is thus worth setting the scene.

The push to legislate for respect

The idea of respect has for some time now enjoyed much public attention. The central protagonist, around whom this debate has unfolded, is President Zuma.

It was given life by Zapiro and his cartoon depicting the President looming ominously over lady justice, presumably poised to rape her, as she is held down by the President’s accomplices. But it was The Spear painting that provided the fuel on which this particular fire has burnt so brightly ever since. The naked representation of the President sent many into a state of moral apoplexy and the charge made that it both robbed the President of his dignity and epitomized a general lack of respect (particularly among white South Africans) for the President and, by extension, African culture, which, we are told, frowns upon such criticism.

Against this background we have seen a recent drive to safeguard the President against attacks on him of this nature. Led by the South African Communist Party, the proposal has been made that a law be passed, preventing ‘disrespect’ of the President.

In November last year, in a move reminiscent more of Stalinism than Socialism, the SACP in KwaZulu-Natal mooted the idea that legislation be enacted making it illegal to insult the President.

KwaZulu-Natal SACP deputy chairperson Nomarashiya Dolly Caluza described the party’s motivation for the suggestion like this:

“We have African values. We don’t want to see [those aspects] of foreign cultures imposed on us in South Africa. According to African values, respect is the one thing which shows you are a human being… Our president is the chairperson of the African Union [sic], he has been elected to an international education committee, but in his own country he is not respected. We are saying enough is enough. We cannot just keep quiet and let them continue doing this.”

SACP provincial secretary Themba Mthembu said that, “once a person has been appointed president, such a person needs to be respected and protected, whether it’s Zuma or Helen Zille one day” (but, presumably, not if Helen Zille is elected Premier of a province, then insults are perfectly in order).

The idea was supported by SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande who, according to The Star, argued “We are being undermined by whites” and that therefore there was a need for a law protecting the President from attacks that were “unfair, and lacking in fact and truth”.
He said, “people can differ with me and you can insult me as you like, but disrespect, that is not acceptable”.

Later Nzimande would claim the paper had misrepresented him (“The Star is lying”, he said) and that his intent was merely to highlight the idea as worthy of debate: “We need to open a debate about boundaries and decency of debate and what is a legitimate criticism and what is an insult”. If that debate resulted in the need for a law, so be it, argued Nzimande.

Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi took issue with the idea only so far as it applied to the President alone; instead, everyone should be protected from insult he argued:

“Insults directed towards anyone are not right. Whether you are the president or a church minister. We must protect the dignity of every South African whether you are unemployed, a striking worker or an unborn child… We don’t want to support something that will personalise the issue. The constitution treats us all equally. I get scared when people say ‘just the president’.”

Essentially, then, there exist three positions on the subject (outside of the widespread opposition to it): that there should be a law outlawing insults directed at the President; that there should be a debate about the possibility of such a law; and that the law should be extended to apply to everyone.

It is not, however, my intention to interrogate the myriad problems inherent to an anti-insult law (it is profoundly wrong, illiberal and an idea that has been easily and effectively dismantled as unconstitutional elsewhere) nor the nature of the argument in support of it (equally flawed) rather I wish to use this issue to explore the idea of respect itself.

A profound misunderstanding

It is apparent from the way Nzimande and the SACP uses the word he does not understand what it actually means; indeed, that it has been confused with another word – deference – one that means something entirely different.

Subsequent to the proposal, Nzimande went on radio to explain himself. The following is a transcription of an exchange between Nzimande and a caller (the reference to gang-rapist and private parts is to the Zapiro lady justice cartoon and The Spear painting respectively):

702 Talk Radio
15 November 2012

Caller: … May I ask you, what do you say respect is?
Blade Nzimande: What do I say respect is?
Caller: Yes, what does it mean?
Blade Nzimande: Are you asking me really, seriously? Respect is not to paint me as a gang-rapist. If you want to criticize me, if I am wrong or you disagree, you are entitled to do that but to paint me as a gang-rapist… that is being disrespectful. To actually paint the President of the Republic of South Africa with his private parts…
Caller: Surely…
Blade Nzimande: … that is disrespectful. Let me just say also what I do not like and the hypocrisy. Some of these [white people who fail to show respect] today, who appear to be democrats, at the height of the struggles against apartheid, when we were being butchered by the regime, they never marched to PW Botha’s house. They never marched to FW de Klerk’s office even. Many of them were actually enjoying the privileges of apartheid. Today they are the big ones who are talking about freedom of expression when they took cover at the time when it mattered most to actually fight against this thing.
Caller: The dictionary says respect is a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something, elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements. So respect, to respect someone, you have to respect them for what they do or say or the way they behave. So how can we respect certain people…
Blade Nzimande: … No, I don’t know where you take that, I don’t agree with your dictionary, I am sorry. It’s your own dictionary. You respect a person whether you agree with him or not.
Caller: It’s in the dictionary. And we…
Blade Nzimande: … No, no, no, don’t come and quote the Oxford English Dictionary, I’m sorry, because that is precisely the issue I am fighting. This kind of imposition of certain culture values at the complete disregard of the cultural values of the overwhelming majority of the people in this country, that’s my issue.

Essentially, what the caller was saying is that there exists a well-established understanding of the word respect (she was quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, generally accepted as the standard reference). That understanding is that respect must be earned, it cannot be given regardless; certainly it cannot be demanded. It is earned through behavior that engenders admiration in turn. If one does not behave in that manner, respect cannot be expected to be forthcoming. This makes sense. The idea places a certain amount of responsibility on a person seeking it: they must act appropriately. Take away that responsibility and there is no incentive to behave in an admirable way. It is for this reason we encourage good behavior, so that people will respect the right things.

There do exist words that describe the unthinking admiration Nzimande speaks of: deference or obsequiousness, for example. They represent the language of authoritarianism – to demand unthinking sycophancy is to demand respect without the requirement that one deserve it. It is the attitude of a demagogue or dictator.

This, however, is what Nzimande was demanding. As he put it: “You respect a person whether you agree with him or not”. But it is his suggestion that the caller not bother to “quote the Oxford English Dictionary”, that it represents the “imposition of certain culture values at the complete disregard of the cultural values of the overwhelming majority of the people in this country”, that is most problematic. And it is that attitude that speaks directly to the misunderstanding I refer.

Some questions

Why is it those who advocate for respect to be misused in this way insist that this particular word be used in the first case? After all, they clearly mean deference.

The answer to that question is a fairly straightforward one: they insist upon respect because it comes with the implicit assumption that it is the authentic reflection of how one feels (deference is mere acquiescence). If you can say ‘The President is respected’, what you are really saying or, at least, what you want to be able to say, is ‘The President is admired’ – people look up to and have high regard for the President of their own volition.

Of course, that cannot be said. The President is not, generally, admired. And he is not just without admiration, for many he is actually held in contempt.

The game is given away if you consider the alternative: a law that would legislate for deference. That is simply not palatable – an undemocratic and authoritarian idea. The kind of thing a King or Chief would demand – an unthinking and submissive citizenry that yields criticism in favour of ‘polite’ respect. Put another way, that pretends to respect for the sake of good manners or out of concern for the possible repercussions should they not comply.

The relationship between fear and deference should not be underestimated. In a society where respect is properly understood, it is accompanied by its natural consequence: tolerance, for disagreement and criticism. In a society where deference is demanded and respect little more than a euphemism for that desire, there must be consequences for a failure to demonstrate the appropriate flattery. Because it is not authentic it must be enforced (hence the requirement for laws and legislation). So, unlike respect, deference is inevitably accompanied by fear. One is being instructed to act in a certain way, and threatened with punishment if unwilling.

The meaning of words

If one cannot rely on the very meaning of words in order to have arguments and make decisions then much more than our constitution is worth less than the paper it is written upon – the great debate itself, about our future and its nature, is rendered meaningless.

One can have a discussion about the prominence of English, and that its prevalence is to the detriment of other vernacular languages but to start contesting meaning itself as racist is the last refuge of a desperate populist suffering low-self esteem. Meaning is value-neutral; how you use words determines their effect.

And here is the thing, you can throw away the dictionary and with it common sense, I wonder, what remains? Not another language – for Nzimande likes the word respect itself. No, something else: a set of cultural impulses, informed by an inarticulated and authoritarian tradition. And when that holds sway, it doesn’t matter what words or language you use, those in power will use them to mean whatever they want.

Now, Blade Nzimande might be a shallow, authoritarian demagogue but he certainly is authentic. Give him that much. He says what he means. And what he means is: take nothing for granted, even words themselves, the basic building blocks of reason and logic, are tainted by racism and cultural superiority.

Bullies behave in this manner. It’s why they beat up kids in the playground. They suffer low self-esteem and so, unable to engender respect, they rule by fear: show the appropriate deference or face my wrath. And make no mistake, they are perfectly happy consciously to confuse the resultant fear for respect and to boast about in what high regard they believe themselves held. The truth is, they are feared, not respected. You can sense that bullying attitude permeating through Nzimande’s exchange with the caller.

And so the SACP’s proposal is particularly revealing. It is an admission of failure. Their refusal to use the appropriate word and to insist respect is what they are after tells you everything. They want to relieve the President of any responsibility to act in a manner worthy of admiration and yet, at the same time, fool themselves and everyone else into believing, because they have a law, suddenly people have changed their attitude towards Zuma, his behavior and attitudes; to believe the ostensible admiration a law like that would require was somehow genuine. In short, to paint their autocratic demand with a veneer of respectable authenticity.


So, don’t be fooled. Respect is yours to give. It cannot be required of you and a law to that effect is an exercise in self-delusion. Every time you hear the idea used in the manner described above be sure of one thing: what is being discussed is deference, not respect. And you are being asked to forgo not just its denotation and connotations but your right to arrive at your own judgement, based on those standards and values particular to you.

And never agree to allow those in power to relinquish their responsibility to act in a manner that engenders respect. To do that would be to allow them to act any which way they want and to enjoy the pretense of legitimacy regardless. That is to the set the scene for demagoguery and dictatorship. Have no part in it.

Words and meaning are under assault in South Africa. The very understanding of words agreed upon and widely accepted are now up for negotiation, as the populists, demagogues and racial cultural zealots amongst us attempt to impose their own interpretation on those values and principles defined in the South African constitution. I have dealt here only with the idea of respect, but many other words – offence, excellence, arrogance, dignity, accountability, and so on – are subject to exactly the same kind of manipulation.

Think carefully about which words you use and why and take a moment to understand the very things one often takes for granted are now contested by a force unwilling to spell out exactly what it means and motivated by a powerful authoritarian impulse and low self-esteem. When such people are in power, the threat is all the more real.

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  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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