This puppet is no free-speech hero
On Saturday 29 November, comedian-ventriloquist Conrad Koch and his more famous puppet, Chester Missing, were awarded a certificate of recognition for their fight against racism from the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.
The award celebrates Koch’s recent court victory to overturn the gagging order imposed on him – and his puppet – by singer and fellow Afrikaner, Steve Hofmeyr. Hofmeyr issued the gagging order after Koch called on Hofmeyr’s sponsors to withdraw their support for his upcoming concerts over an allegedly racist remark Hofmeyr made on Twitter.
The offended tweet read: ‘Sorry to offend but in my books Blacks were the architects of Apartheid. Go figure.’ It was instantly met with a spate of comments from the Twitterati and an outraged response from Koch, in the persona of his puppet. Koch then called on Hofmeyr’s sponsors to withdraw their support in a well-publicised open letter on his personal blog.
Government officials, liberals and political commentators have been falling over themselves to pat Koch on the back for his brave stand. Many saw Koch’s actions as a blow for free speech and anti-racism, but I beg to differ. By effectively trying to shut down Hofmeyr’s concerts, Koch was issuing a gagging order of his own. Rather than try to take on Hofmeyr’s arguments and win in the court of public opinion, Koch merely tried to shut him up.
Hofmeyr’s comment may have been offensive to some, but most people would not have taken it seriously. To me, it came across as a comment from an embittered Afrikaner about how, 25 years after Apartheid, South African society is still very much defined by race. In fact, Hofmeyr campaigned for the African National Congress (ANC) in the Nineties, alongside my mother, who was then the mayor of Midrand.
Hofmeyr’s gagging order was wrong, but so was Koch’s. Today’s so-called anti-racists seem to want to shield racism from view, rather than trust the public to grapple with the issue openly and make up their own minds.
Sharmini Brookes is a writer based in Johannesburg.