The Power of Poo in Southern Africa

Freedom of speech advocates use an unorthodox approach in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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A protestor, center, carries a metal bar through the city center of Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. A protest by hundreds of people from township areas near Cape Town against the South African government not delivering on basic services like running water at government housing projects, and toilets , ended with protestors looting shops in the city center of Cape Town.

Poo politics have been all the rage in southern Africa recently. African National Congress youth members schmeared their ordure on the steps of the Western Cape Legislature in South Africa to protest poor bathroom facilities in a nearby impoverished township. Two labor union leaders, meanwhile,  were arrested over the summer after attempting to leave a mess on (note: not in) Cape Town International Airport.

And in Zimbabwe, a twenty-six year-old was arrested at his local watering hole and charged with insulting the president as well as defacing election materials, both criminal offenses, after he allegedly used a campaign poster as toilet paper. Who knew the power of poo?

Here's what happened next in each case. The fecal flingers in the Rainbow Nation were reprimanded for defacing government property and released on bail. Judge Denis Davis, who presided over the government's case against the two union defecating demonstrators, lectured prosecutors about the need to have an extremely good reason before taking away an individual's freedom.

This Wednesday, meanwhile, freedom of speech activists and excited excrement expressionists in Zimbabwe had a cause célèbre. The country's top court "admonished" government prosecutors for abusing the nation's dubious insult laws and ordered the justice minister to appear later this month to explain how the laws are consistent with the new constitution's free speech guarantee.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

"It is important that the name of the president is not just dragged here to the courts unnecessarily. The attorney general should be careful not to allow prosecution when a person says something in a bar where people are just making statements while drunk," said Constitutional Court judge Luke Malaba.

Zimbabwe's justice department had prosecuted more than 80 individuals for insulting President Robert Mugabe – many of which resulted in prison sentences or fines. In one well-publicized case, a senior opposition party member was arrested this March after allegedly calling the president a "limping donkey." In another, police jailed a university professor after he characterized Mugabe as "a rotten old donkey."

But Zimbabwean dung dissidents should not be planning a number two protest just yet. Mugabe has a history of flouting court rulings and is acutely sensitive of his image. Still, the court's resolute stand to protect and uphold the right of freedom of expression is promising – even if it has to hold its nose while doing so.

Drew F. Cohen is a law clerk to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @DF_Cohen or email him at dfcohen@law.gwu.edu.

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