Pierre de Vos
Pierre de Vos

So much for freedom of the media and freedom of religion

Like Deon Maas, I am not a fan of satanism (or Christianity, for that matter). I would not mind the post-midnight gatherings, the listening to Cora Marie or Bles Bridges backward to hear messages of support, the incense and the candles, or the fetching young men in black looking morose and comically trying to feign evil looks. But, really, after a few weeks being a satanist would become terribly boring and mundane — how many times can one perform rituals to a non-existent being without becoming somewhat jaded? Soon going to the satanist gathering would be no better than attending an NG Kerk sermon in Christiana or a Julio Iglesias concert in Boksburg.

Yet, I find myself horrified by the decision of Tim du Plessis, editor of the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport, to fire columnist Deon Maas because he wrote a column in which he argued for some understanding of satanism.

Maas, who used to write a mildly amusing column for the Saturday supplement to Die Burger and Beeld before moving to Rapport two weeks ago, apparently offended some serious religious nuts by writing that satanism was a religion like any other and was therefore constitutionally entitled to the same kind of protection as any other religion. In tongue-in-cheek style he wrote that he was not a big fan of satanism because it was rather a lot of effort:

Die slag van vreedsame huisdiere, die skeur van Bybels, die algemene beswaardheid waarmee jy moet saamleef, swart geverfde vingernaels en die feit dat jy gewoonlik ná middernag moet wakker wees om jou geloof te beoefen, is alles faktore wat Anton LaVey se filosofie effe onaanvaarbaar vir my maak. (The slaughtering of peaceful pers, the tearing up of Bibles, the general moodiness you have to keep up, black-painted nails and the fact that one usually has to practise one’s religion after midnight are all factors that make Anton LaVey’s philosophy somewhat unacceptable to me.)

Probably anticipating some of the histrionic reactions of some Rapport readers, some of whom seem to be caught in a time warp and still seem to believe that dancing on Sunday is a mortal sin and that having sex with one’s wife is only barely tolerable in the eyes of God, Maas tries to cover his back by writing:

Propageer hierdie rubriek satanisme? Nee. Maar as ons wil hê ander mense moet ons punt insien en ons idees respekteer, moet ons hul punt insien en hul idees respekteer. Om iemand anders se idee te verstaan, beteken nie dat jy daarmee hoef saam te stem nie. (Do I propagate satanism in this column? No. But if we want others to see our point of view or respect our ideas, we have to also try to see their point of view and respect their ideas. To understand another’s idea does not necessarily mean one agrees with it.)

Eight days after this column appeared, an SMS campaign was launched by faceless readers to boycott the paper. According to Tim du Plessis, the campaign — which also targeted the distributors of the paper — started affecting the commercial interests of the newspaper. Freedom of expression is one thing, but the bottom line is clearly another; hence Maas was dismissed unceremoniously.

I must say, Rapport is not on my list of must-read publications. Ever since it paid Wit Wolf Barend Strydom R25 000 for a post-prison interview in the early Nineties and then treated the mass murderer as if he was a hero of the volk, I have struggled to regain any respect for the paper. It is not the stories of dominees caught with their pants down that turn me away, as much as the terribly parochial attention to rugby and all matters Afrikaans. Every time I read it I want to scream: Red nou ‘n volk!

However, the editor’s decision last week to fire Maas because of a column he wrote on satanism has lowered my even low estimation of the paper. Don’t these people have any backbone? And who are these readers who still get upset about mild schoolboy statements aiming to shock? Don’t these people have better things to do?

The saga is depressing on several levels. It suggests that a sizeable chunk of Rapport readers — and therefore South Africans — has not yet internalised the values of tolerance and respect for diversity enshrined in our Constitution and, in fact, may be actively opposed to such a value system. Maas was, of course, perfectly correct: the Constitution protects our freedom of religion and conscience, which includes the right to practise one’s religion as long as one does not break the law. If I want to open a satanist church in Putsonderwater or a Seventh-Day Adventist spa in Potgietersrus, I am constitutionally entitled to do so.

Religious fanatics do not have a constitutional right to stop me from practising my beliefs — no matter how peculiar or boring they may appear. That is why priests in the Catholic Church are allowed to prance around in their dresses and wave around chalices while making funny noises supposed to sound like Latin, while the sinister Afrikaner Protestantse Kerk can conduct sermons from which black people are explicitly prohibited. This is called freedom of religion.

Now, this is Rapport we are talking about, so one must assume that some of its readers are not all that bright and that many of them do not rejoice and praise the Lord every Sunday for delivering us from the evil apartheid system and allowing us to live in a free country. But there seems to be a difference between people who have a silent, simmering, hatred and distrust for the values of the “new South Africa” and people who are actively prepared to fight against these values.

It is quite disturbing that there are enough such people to launch a successful boycott campaign against a newspaper merely because someone published an article in it pleading for tolerance of satanism and extolling the virtues of freedom of religion. It suggests these people are very, very cross: they probably believe that satanism is up there with eating baby livers for dinner or catching a black man having sex with your blonde daughter in the marital bed (I am not equating these things, of course, but mocking the values of those who started this campaign).

To me these views are absurd and ridiculous and I can hardly imagine that there are still people who get upset about satanism. But then again I do not believe in satanism or baby Jesus, so maybe I am not the right person to get to grips with this. However, looking around me I wonder: if they are so concerned with evil, should they not rather campaign against the Catholic Church for condoning child molestation or start a campaign against child hunger? Is it really worse that Deon Maas writes about satanism than that people still die of hunger in the world?

Of course, the fact that these views are out there suggests that no matter what the Constitutional Court says about respect for diversity, many South Africans have hatred in their blood and will not be deterred by mooipraatjies about respect for the views of others.

It is also sad and a bit frightening that the newspaper caved in so easily while piously claiming it supported the notion of freedom of speech. (Strangely it did not endorse the equally important protected freedom of religion, belief and conscience — maybe because its readers do not endorse it either?) Can freedom of the press be undermined so easily by citizen activism? And do newspapers who easily scream about the public interest not have a duty to stand up to the naked bigotry of the public?

What would happen if ANC activists started a similar campaign against Mondli Makhanya from the Sunday Times? Will they have the same clout to convince its owners to fire him for “commercial reasons”? Or will the proprietors of the Sunday Times have a bit more of a backbone than those at Rapport? I would sincerely hope so, because if all newspaper proprietors cave in as easily as those at Rapport have, we can say goodbye to media freedom. Then freedom of the media will be as much a dirty word as freedom of religion seems to be, and that is a troubling thought indeed.