Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beware: SOHF is spreading

Sometimes it is not only horrific crime stories or Thabo Mbeki’s quiet (twiddling-your-thumbs-while-Rome-burns) diplomacy on Zimbabwe that creep out of South Africa for international consumption. Recently, I heard the story of KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Peggy Nkonyeni, who suspended rural doctor Mark Blaylock for throwing her picture in the bin. He claims to have been incensed by her visit to a rural hospital where she apparently commented that rural doctors cared more about profit than people and that AZT was toxic.

My favourite part of this story was that the Health Department tried to charge Blaylock with malicious damage to State property. The local prosecutor threw the case out of court, not because the department is clearly insane, but because Blaylock had not damaged the photo.

Of course, Nkonyeni has feelings and I sympathise with that. But getting worked up to the point that someone is almost forced into court strikes me as being sensitive in the extreme. You would think that a person holding public office would be more robust.

Blaylock subsequently apologised. Graciously, Nkonyeni has now lifted the suspension and, in return, is investigating “racism, ill-treatment of staff and abuse of departmental facilities by Dr Blaylock and some doctors operating at some of our rural facilities”.

If the new allegations are true, these should be looked at. But why suspend Blaylock for ‘photo abuse’ and think about racism, a much more serious charge, as an afterthought?

When I heard this story, it reminded me of the tale that used to do the rounds when I worked on the Wits Student newspaper in the 1980s. It concerned Mark Douglas-Home, editor of the student newspaper. The young Douglas-Home, a Briton studying in South Africa, ran a cartoon featuring a small girl peering into a toilet, asking, “Is that the Prime Minister?” The Prime Minister at the time, BJ Vorster, not renowned for his sense of humour, was outraged. Douglas-Home was deported to England in 1972.

Now, of course, I am not making direct comparisons between Nkonyeni and Vorster, which would be ridiculous. It is impossible to compare anyone or anything to Vorster, except, maybe, a toilet.

But I do want to question why deference to political power, whether a photograph or an irreverent cartoon, is even expected, whether in the past or the present.

The whole notion of heads of State or government functionaries being adorned on walls or commemorated through statues, the world over, is something I cannot fathom.

Those in office are paid by you and me. They work for us. If anyone’s face should be on the wall, it should be those of the people. I appreciate that putting a picture of a few million people on a wall is a tad tricky. I am also not condoning disrespectful behaviour to leaders. A President or a pauper deserves respect. But respect is something which is earned, not created through plastering pictures of the President, or whoever, all over the place.

Also, what is it about being in a position of power that causes one’s sense of humour to expire? There seems to be an inverse relationship between political power and a disease called SOHF, aka Sense of Humour Failure. And what worries me is that SOHF is spreading rampantly in South Africa.

Last I heard, Jacob Zuma had caught the bug. He is suing Zapiro for depicting him in cartoons as having a shower attached to his head, a not-so-subtle reference to his comments that he showers after sex to help prevent HIV/Aids transmission.

Zapiro, my friend, my advice is: apologise now and cooperate fully with the commission of inquiry that follows. Better still, flush your pens down the toilet and, why not, deport yourself. I have heard that censorship is the only cure for SOHF.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 May 2008.