THE South African Communist Party’s (SACP’s) helpful suggestion that lèse-majesté laws be implemented to protect the dignity of the office the president could keep a lot of money out of the hands of lawyers and perhaps even improve the efficiency of parliament if fully implemented.
This week the SACP in KwaZulu-Natal called for such a law following a "barrage of criticism" of President Jacob Zuma. SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande has also weighed in, saying such laws could prevent the unravelling of social cohesion, which was undermined by culturally insensitive insults such as the Brett Murray painting that depicted Mr Zuma with his genitals exposed.
To be fair, a number of highly democratic countries have such laws, such as the Netherlands and Norway. However, these laws — over a hundred years old — protect the dignity of royalty and, while still on the books, haven’t actually been used to keep irritated peasants in line in many years. Usage in Norway, which needs the permission of the king, is exceptionally rare, while the Dutch hand out a fine every couple of years — the last in 2007 — to the odd anarchist.
Thailand, also a democracy, aggressively uses its own laws, and hands out jail time that is generally shortened through pardons in high-profile cases.
So such laws are not so odd and not so fatal in the modern world. At least in constitutional monarchies and dictatorships. But the historically aware SACP would know that absolute monarchs and tyrants have been lopping off the heads of mouthy dinner guests and selling their children into slavery since the dawn of history. And the system has worked quite well in ensuring stability. Actual laws on preserving dignity generally coincide with the establishment of the first written legal codes.
The Sumerian code of ur-Nammu and the Babylonian code of Hammurabi are strangely silent on the matter of insulting the head of state. It could, however, just be that it was taken for granted the act of committing such a faux pas would be met with immediate violence and thus they didn’t bother writing it down.
There are provisions for defamation, with those accused of sorcery or adultery given a fair opportunity to prove their innocence by not drowning when thrown into a sacred river. And monarchs with busy schedules, and an army, may have just found it more convenient to kill the accuser than actually take time out of a busy schedule to go swimming every time they were accused of witchcraft by an overstressed taxpayer.
The first written laws on insulting a head of state date back to the Roman Empire, that most legalistic of empires, being written down when the Emperor became synonymous with the state. Criticism of the head of state was therefore criticism of the state, and criticism that undermined the state.
This itself would cause a problem, as Mr Zuma, while president, is not the be-all and end-all of the modern South African democracy. Such laws should therefore be extended to all members of the government, such as parliamentarians.
(The other problem is the constitution, but let’s not go into that.)
Lèse-majesté laws could have significant benefits for South Africa, especially if laws on getting your facts wrong (deliberately or accidently) were also drawn up.
For example: an alleged exchange between Public Service Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and a Democratic Alliance MP this week over how many flights she made between Pretoria and Cape Town when defence minister.
The argument over whether it was 35 flights, as said Ms Sisulu, or more than 200, the figure the DA maintains is correct due to information provided by the current defence minister, could have instead ended with some measure of closure for the curious public.
Instead of harsh words, being allowed to exchange only the truth could have seen the exchange result in an agreement of how many R200,000 trips were made. Ms Sisulu instead ended the exchange by saying the MP should take his "flea-infested body and sit down".
With regulations for the dignity of South Africans, such comments could be prevented if Ms Sisulu was aware that she could find herself doing public service in one of those forced labour camps built especially for the both indiscreet and unpatriotic South African.
The SACP is therefore quite right to call for such regulations. It would improve the efficiency of the state and perhaps even allow for parliamentarians to quite confidently ask and answer questions without having their feelings hurt.