IT IS at the height of the Cold War. An American and a Russian are sitting in a bar in London.
"If I want I can stand in front of the White House and shout 'f**k the president'," boasts the American.
The Russian retorts: "That is no big deal I can also stand in front of the White House and say the same thing."
I was reminded of this old story at the news that the security team manning the presidential motorcade had accosted a jogger, bundled him into their car and kept him in custody for 24 hours. According to their version he had shown President Jacob Zuma the finger.
The London bar discussion suggests that the Russian could not appreciate that the American was in effect boasting about levels of freedom the Americans enjoyed. There are various versions of the presidential motorcade story.
The police say they apprehended Chumani Maxwele, an active ANC and Woodstock community policing forum member, who had not only sworn at the number one citizen but had also resisted arrest when the lawmen wanted to show him the error of his ways.
The latest version from the authorities is that he has apologised and admitted that he shouldn't have shown the president the finger. The police have also found it necessary to volunteer the fact that Maxwele has two criminal convictions, one for common assault and another for riotous behaviour.
The police version, if true, contradicts Maxwele's stated intention to sue police for their high-handedness.
Assuming the police version is true, Maxwele was jogging when the blue light brigade drove past him and he showed them and by extension the president a rude gesture. So what?
Given the levels of crime in this country, can we really afford police stopping to interrogate a man simply because he was rude to a passing motorcade?
In a free country such as the one we believe we are, citizens should have the right to show their head of state the finger, literally and figuratively, without it being a treasonous offence. It is the beauty of living in a free country.
The state and its institutions are not religious organisations where once the high priest has spoken anyone who contradicts him is guilty of blasphemy.
The president, and the premier, or the mayor for that matter, is an elected public representative, not a god.
Citizens are entitled to speak their minds and to use as robust a language as they like - short of hate speech or actual violence such as throwing a shoe at the official whose policies they do not like.
To confine citizens to "polite" expressions of their opinion is to deny them the right of freedom of expression as entrenched in our Constitution. At any rate, who gets to decide what is polite? Is, for example, booing the president more acceptable than showing him the finger?
It will be a sad day when we sink to the levels of Zimbabwe, Swaziland or Botswana, where holding and voicing an opinion about the head of state can cost you your freedom.
Our struggle would have been in vain should we end up like Swaziland, where citizens may not take the king's decisions to court no matter how unreasonable they are.
Having spent 10 years in jail and a good part of two decades in exile for the freedom that Maxwele is enjoying, Zuma must fasten his belt. He should tell his overzealous protectors that Maxwele is the embodiment of the freedom he fought for or run the risk of being complicit in the young man's Orwellian state ordeal.