Op-eds

SA, where we are free to do the time warp again

  • Geoff
In spite of many areas that have declined in South Africa since the end of apartheid, a shining achievement is the fact that we have freedom of speech comparable with the best in the Western world. It’s enforced by our Constitution.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jan 23, 2020

We can say almost anything, ridicule any political or cultural figure we like, and promote any cause, as long as it isn’t defamatory or hate speech.

At the moment, a season of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show is on stage in Johannesburg, a fairytale extravaganza of wildness and naughtiness, which raises no eyebrows at all. In the 1970s it was banned, but today, for most people, it’s simply another show.

This production is an indication of how things have changed in this country in the decades since the show’s international debut in 1973, right in the middle of the apartheid era. The film version made in 1975 was released in South Africa a year later. At the time, under the government’s censorship board, it was restricted to audiences over the age of 21, and achieved viewership of about 250 000. But soon after its local release, it was banned entirely, along with other shows the censorship board considered too decadent or dangerous.

The tragic irony of the censorship of the show in the 1970s is that at the same time, the government was sending young white boys in the South African Army into the most horrendous violence in the Angolan Bush War from 1966. Yet, they then had to come back home to South Africa and be regarded as too young to watch the Rocky Horror Show.

In other words, violence and killing was fine, but sex wasn’t, according to the vice-like restrictions of conservative society.

Politically during apartheid, people like satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys pushed the boundaries of censorship by ridiculing political figures, but today, they can easily say what they like. Cartoonist Zapiro is another example. His cartoons regularly lampoon all political and other public figures from the left to the right, but they are accepted as untouchable.

Even a notorious cartoon in 2008 depicting then future President Jacob Zuma unbuttoning his trousers, about to rape Lady Justice, assisted by his political allies, didn’t lead to prosecution. A formal complaint against the cartoon was lodged with the Human Rights Commission, and Zuma sued Zapiro for R4 million for alleged damage to his reputation, and R1 million for injury to his dignity. In 2012, Zuma withdrew the lawsuit. Thus, the cartoon caused a public furore, but one that went away.

In the 1970s when the Rocky Horror Show was banned, its main message was the phrase, “Don’t dream it, be it” which referred to sexuality in all its various forms and tolerance towards people’s sexual identity. The show rapidly took on cult status throughout the Western world.

The production’s interest for South African audiences was apparent by the packed-to-the-rafters auditorium at Montecasino. Also apparent was the exuberance of audience members, screaming with delight almost throughout, which is uncharacteristic of the normally sedate South African audiences. Go to almost any show in this country, and the audience might laugh or be thoughtful, but usually little more that.

South Africans tend to see their country in an extremely negative light. Often with good reason, given the mess that’s been made of it. But some things we can be proud of. One of them is that we’re free to “Do the time warp again”, the dance of the Rocky Horror Show, which brings many freedoms.

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