The balance between criticism and disrespect

“I think you must respect me,” the national assembly in parliament heard President Jacob Zuma tell the rather assertive and young parliamentary leader of the Democratic alliance, Lindiwe Mazibuku, on Thursday.

Zuma made those utterances in the face of tough questioning about his homestead (I would have used the word ‘compound’ but then I would be called racist) in Nkandla.

The opposition has been unequivocally robust in denouncing a R248 million upgrade of Zuma’s personal residence in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal.

But that’s a topic I will leave for experts and opinion leaders. The element of respect that the president demanded was what really intrigued me.

It has become somewhat fashionable among intellectuals, journalists and others to dish out hard words of rebuke against President Jacob Zuma.

The million dollar rationalisation is that he hasn’t earned the respect of the public, and I too believe that.

But can discourteous and impertinent mouthfuls flung at the president in public be justified?

Let’s take the parliament sitting for example.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is at least 30 years Zuma’s junior, was appointed to throw the punches, particularly on the Nkandla issue.

“Are these security enhancements? The fact that is the Honourable President’s private home is something we take exception to. The government does not have a responsibility to upgrade, at a cost of R250 million, the private home,” she spat out.

For me it was not what she said, it was her patronising manner and abrasive attitude that startled me.

Okay, okay. I can understand your speculation at this stage, but don’t get me wrong: criticize Zuma all you like, you have the right to. It is the place, time and manner that play a significant role.

And no, I am not on the payroll of Dr. Blade Nzimande, who wants legislation in place to protect Zuma’s dignity. I believe, as upstanding and intellectual individuals, columnists, analysts, the opposition etc., should not lose their sense of respect in picking out the faults of the president.

On the flip side, the dreadful spear can be brought into the debate. Was it disrespectful to our president? Yes it was. But it was art - a tangible interpretation of an abstract idea - and art cannot be censored.

So while I didn’t cheer Jackson Mthembu’s call to boycott the City Press at the time, I personally felt the painting was distasteful in many ways.

President Jacob Zuma is not beyond hardline criticism. He has failed this country, if you ask me, but he is a human being who deserves the right to rudimentary respect.

Lindiwe Mazibuku was caught up in the moment as I and many others do at some point. The significant element to note is that while we try to hold the president accountable, we are undermining the aura of respect given to the house of parliament, to the field of journalism and so fought.

We honestly do not have to play dirty when divulging dirt on the president or anyone else for that matter. There is a distinction in fact, between criticism and disrespect.

I am not saying we should all don red and join the SACP’s march to defend the president’s dignity. Call him a douche bag if you like, but in the appropriate time and place.