Calls for insult laws to protect South African President Zuma from criticism

The South African Communist Party (SACP) this week made a public call for a law to be instituted to protect the country’s president against “insults”. The call, by one of its provincial branches, was in response to growing public outrage about R240 million (about £17m) worth of taxpayer’s money spent on upgrading the private homestead of the incumbent, Jacob Zuma.

Minister for higher education and SACP general secretary Dr Blade Nzimande reportedly supported the call by the KwaZulu Natal SACP but later said he is calling for a public debate on the issue.

Two investigations are underway into the price tag attached to “security upgrades” at Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu Natal, which far exceeds that of residences of former presidents.

Demotix -  Jordi Matas

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma speaking to a union congress (Demotix)

In parliament last week (15 Nov) Zuma insisted that “all the buildings and every room we use in that residence was [sic] built by ourselves.” In response, Lindiwe Mazibuko, the leader of the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), pointed out that the upgrades are not limited to “security” but include 31 new buildings, lifts to an underground bunker, air conditioning systems, a visitors’ centre, gymnasium and guest rooms. It reportedly even includes “his and hers bathrooms”.

Since the excessive amount became known at a parliamentary meeting in May this year, investigative journalists have requested further information using the Protection of Access to Information Act. The public works department, however, refused to comply, citing the National Key Points Act, which makes it illegal to distribute information about sites related to national security. The public works ministry also launched an investigation to find the whistleblower who leaked the information to the media, with a view to prosecution.

The SACP believes that questions about the Nkandla extensions, including by DA leader Helen Zille who led a thwarted visit to the homestead, harm Zuma’s dignity. In a thinly veiled threat, the SACP claimed such questions would undermine South Africa’s “carefully constructed and negotiated reconciliation process and could unfortunately plunge our country into an abyss of racial divisions and tensions.”

Insult laws “protecting” presidents from criticism exist in France, Spain and across South America and Africa.

Christi van der Westhuizen is Index on Censorship’s new South African correspondent