As Porn Proliferates, S. Africa Debates Free Speech

In the bad old days of apartheid, Calvinist puritanism coupled with political repression spelled strict control in South Africa.

Films and books were censored for subversive as well as sexual material. Even a hint of nudity was banned on television. People couldn't even go to the movies on Sundays.

That's all changed in the three years since the end of apartheid. Since Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency in 1994 and vowed to uphold personal freedoms, sex shops have swamped the cities.

Today, it is just as easy to buy Penthouse magazine as it is a pack of chewing gum.

This new permissiveness has given birth to an uncomfortable debate here. Some people are arguing that personal liberty has been taken too far. Others say it has not gone far enough.

The new government, trying to make everyone happy, is struggling to find a balance between freedom of expression and social control.

This has led to a kind of seesaw from liberalization to conservatism as the new government grapples with the pornography question that has long plagued more developed societies like the United States.

The issue goes beyond the explicit magazines. For many South Africans, it's about free speech.

'We're seeing a backlash'

"The initial liberalizing of laws led to a flood of pornography. This was a novelty which shocked people. Now we're seeing a backlash," says Raashid Galand, information officer of the independent watchdog Freedom of Expression Institute based in Johannesburg.

In the Film and Publications Act passed last year, the government took steps to tighten controls on pornography. A review board still to be set up will classify movies and publications to maintain a delicate balance between allowing freedom of choice and keeping more conservative citizens happy.

According to defenders of free speech, like Mr. Galand, the new law is almost as strict as the apartheid-era 1974 Publications Act.

They express concern that the new act leaves open to interpretation definitions of "sexually explicit" and "pornography." Among recent films considered for banning was the 1995 American movie "Kids," which has explicit scenes of sex and drug use among minors. Galand says the public should have been left to decide whether or not to view it.

"It is unacceptable the way [the act] defines material which can be banned, particularly considering the government's commitment to greater openness and freedom of expression," he says.

While lauding the new act's restrictions on the import, production, and distribution of child pornography, he objects to its prohibition on possession of such materials.

"This invades people's privacy by serving as a potential pretext for harassment and the searching of private homes," he says.

For Emdin van Zyl, who runs an adult video store in Johannesburg, further censorship presents a more dangerous risk to society: driving the market underground again.

At present, his store neither allows minors to enter nor sells hard-core pornography. Demand is brisk, with turnover having risen from $5,555 monthly when the shop opened two years ago to $26,666 in a good month.

"It would be far worse if it [pornography] went underground. There would be no controls on the hard-core stuff," he says.

Mr. Van Zyl's neighbors seem untroubled by the men and women going in and out of the purple-painted door.

"It doesn't bother me," says Ebrahim Sheik, owner of the furniture shop next door. "If that's what makes people happy, it's their business, not mine."

A rise in violent sex crimes

Such a laissez-faire attitude is not taken by the right-wing Freedom Front, for whom the new law does not go far enough. It blames permissiveness by the new government for a disturbing rise in violent sex crimes. South Africa has one of the world's highest rape rates, with one occurring every 25 seconds.

"The government is far too permissive. It underestimates the influence of pornography completely. There is a relation between pornography and rape," says the Front's deputy secretary- general, Col. Piet Uys.

He defends the degree of censorship under apartheid, asserting that it was what the public wanted.

"Now people have stopped complaining because they feel they have no influence any more," he says. "Their complaints are just shouts against the wind."

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