Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was a man of many contradictions, early life versus later life, before becoming President and after becoming President, freedom fighter and slave owner.
He definitely made the most of his freedom with at least one slave, including sexual freedom, but never gave them a chance to enjoy their freedom, except for a very few, including those slaves that were fruits of his freedom with their slave mother.
One of his contradictions concerned freedom of speech and freedom of the press. When in government, but before becoming President, he declared:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people; the very first object should be to keep that right, and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter
“But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Here, he made several points which are very relevant to our current debates on freedom of expression. The opinion of the people is paramount in government. The government must, therefore, heed the opinion of the people.
The newspapers – in those times, nowadays social media – represent the opinion of the people whether those in power like it or not.
All people should read the newspapers, which implies the need for proper education and distribution of the papers, nowadays probably access to and ability to use social media.
And most radical of all. The people’s opinions are so important that they are actually more important than the government itself. Better to have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. Only then can the rulers be held accountable
As Jefferson also stated: “The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.”
It is necessary to keep the waters pure. Wow!
However, once he became President, Jefferson changed his mind. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
From purity to pollution! A u-turn to rival that of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on energy and the environment. Of course, Jefferson was never alone in these u-turns and has plenty of good company even today.
We only have to look at the pronouncements of some of our politicians before they are elected, when they are in office, and after they leave office.
As people like to comment on social media, if that person in office met his or her own person either before or after office, they would not recognise one another and might even come to blows.
Political ulokole – born again after leaving office! And don’t tell me that once in office, they understood better because, if that were the case, they would carry the same ‘better’ understanding into their post-office life.
It seems that holding an office causes serious skin diseases, making the skin incredibly thin, though, unfortunately, not transparent. Or maybe the skin becomes thin because of the activities of the lice – chawa – for what do lice live on? The blood of the host.
Whatever. But in such circumstances, the skin has to be protected by the whole array of coercive forces identified by Tanzania’s Founding Father, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who recognised that the 1977 Constitution, as it stood, allowed for dictatorship since the State controlled all the instruments of coercion which can largely act with impunity.
Since now it seems that political ulokole only takes place after leaving office –incumbent ulokole is maybe a contradiction in terms – what are the implications for us, the people – umma– of whom Jefferson and many others, including Nyerere, have talked so eloquently?
Mudding the water
Paradoxically, while it is stated that it is the force of public opinion that keeps the waters pure, those in the waters believe that they are the ones who are clean, and the force of public opinion actually muddies the water.
Expressions of public opinion which do not conform to the wishes of those swimming in the waters can easily be interpreted by the swimmers as uchochezi, or incitement, attempts to turn the waters against them.
Well, of course, they are uchochezi, but with a very different meaning from the one given to them by the swimmers.
Even the pronouncements of the swimmers are uchochezi because the aim of any uchochezi is to change people’s opinions, to make them see things differently from before.
So if I say or sing, or show the swimmers are swimming badly, or polluting the water, or treading on the frogs in the water, or even to warn them that they are in danger of being attacked by crocodiles, the swimmers will object and try to use whatever means they have in their power to silence me. And they have the instruments of coercion to do that.
The urge to silence
That is why I go back to Jefferson’s quotation. Without media, which in our day means social media and artistic media –songs, plays, and stories–there is nothing to stop the swimmers from silencing us when they want to.
That is why the decision of what can be classified as uchochezi should not rest with the owners of the instruments of coercion as they become the accused, the prosecutor, and the judge all rolled up into one.
Of course, they are defending their interests. And owing to the thinness of their skin, everything is seen to be uchochezi. And they have set up semi-judicial instruments to protect their skins.
I thought the multiple regulatory authorities, from arts to communications, were meant to act as catalysts, coordinators and promoters, not as controllers of those areas for which they are responsible.
I obviously thought wrong. After all, they are selected by the very people who see uchochezi hiding under every different opinion, so they have indeed become the controllers.
However, what happens if you try to prevent people from expressing dissatisfaction or opposing views? They would do well to heed the words of Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth:
“The political party in many parts of Africa, which are today independent, is puffed up in a most dangerous way. In the presence of a member of the party, the people are silent, behave like a flock of sheep and publish panegyrics in praise of the government of the leader.
“But in the street, when evening comes, away from the village, in the cafes or by the river, the bitter disappointment of the people, their despair but also their unceasing anger makes itself heard.
“The party, instead of welcoming the expression of popular discontentment, instead of taking for its fundamental purpose the free flow of ideas from the people up to the government, forms a screen and forbids such ideas.”
After all, the real uchochezi is bad governance, corruption, violence against the people, and failure to heed and act upon the people’s views. That is what turns the people against the government, not those who put their dissatisfaction into words.
Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.