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South Africa's Ruling Party Will Fail to Quash Freedom of Expression

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Several weeks ago, controversy ignited in South Africa when a Johannesburg gallery opened an exhibition by artist Brett Murray featuring The Spear -- a painting which depicted Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa (and its ruling party, the ANC), with his genitals exposed.

There has been much gnashing of teeth at the decision made by the editor of a Sunday newspaper City Press, to remove a photo of the painting from the paper's website after the unrelenting pressure -- including legal action -- brought about by the ANC.

When it comes to the media, the ANC has brought all its indignant fury down on this one publication. It has been useful to do so, as its single-minded bullying is reminder of who's boss, a flexing of muscle that menacingly reminds both the media and South Africans generally of the even greater fury the party can unleash should it take umbrage to a paper's contents.

The ANC certainly has the power to intimidate the media, fostering a climate of fear, hysteria and hatred. Its behavior can certainly inculcate a mindset of self-censorship amongst the nation's journalists -- which is so much easier and more effective than employing the cumbersome mechanics of official censorship, although through its artful manipulation of the Film & Publication Board you could argue it is using this approach too.

But what the ANC, City Press and the brow-furrowed chattering classes have lost sight of is that this is a changed world, one in which the old mediums (print, TV) still have an important role, but are far from being the only means through which ideas and information can be conveyed.

Indeed, these entities have become absorbed into a chaotic Web in which information (and that includes presidential penises or at least the depiction thereof) is being shared and streamed with lightning speed and astonishing reach.

The ANC might be able to scare the City Press into removing The Spear, but it won't be able to do the same to the thousands of other sites that have posted the image, or to the people that have shared it on social networks or emailed it to their friends.

It is for this reason that the ANC has failed in its attempt to quash creative freedom, even as the party has exposed its contempt for the constitution which guarantees it. It will again fail when, in the months and years ahead, there emerges artworks, writings, films and more that critique, satirize, mock or hold the ANC or its leaders to account.

As the events of this week has shown, the ANC's strategies to shrink the space available for dissent and freedom of expression might sometimes seem effective. But we need to remind ourselves that this space has expanded into the online realm and beyond, to where it is out of the party's reach.

The Arab Spring proved that social media has become a remarkable, unstoppable force to keep information and free thought flowing; a means to challenge and criticize power. In the future, we will see this being wielded by more and more people as social media tools becomes more affordable and accessible. The massive success of Mxit, a mobile social network, in South Africa is an exciting harbinger of this social media explosion.

And, thankfully for South Africa's democracy, this means that the ANC's control of the public broadcaster and its coercion of "old" media will become increasingly irrelevant.

The genie is out of the bottle -- and we're all the better of for that.