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We need to talk about South Africa

The controversial Protection of State Information Bill is threatening South African freedom of speech. South Africa’s well wishers are hoping that the bill will be at least amended especially with a reintroduction of the public interest clause, meaning that transparency and accountability in public affairs would be respected.
N. Jayaram
28 November 2011

South Africa’s millions of well-wishers abroad have watched with dismay as the African National Congress (ANC) government has gone through railroading legislation that is certain to curtail freedoms. It will bring back some of the apartheid-era like curbs that South Africans, with much moral support from legions of sympathizers worldwide, fought hard to shake off.

The National Assembly has passed the Protection of State Information Bill despite severe criticism from a large number of politicians including a few within the ANC and from retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate writer Nadine Gordimer and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory expressed “concern that some aspects of the bill are unconstitutional."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized the bill which will be presented to the upper house of parliament before going to President Jacob Zuma for signing. Several lawmakers and Cosatu have threatened to challenge the bill in the Constitutional Court, should it be signed into law in its present form.

The bill would make it a crime to leak, possess or publish information judged as classified by the government, with whistleblowers and journalists subject to 25 years in jail if found guilty. To make matters worse, there is no public interest defence clause.

"If passed, this bill will unstitch the fabric of our constitution," said Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance at the National Assembly. “It will criminalise the freedom so many of our people fought for,” she said during the debate on the bill.

Since Nelson Mandela stood down in 1999 after just one term as president of post-Apartheid South Africa, there has been a steady slide in governance under his successors Thabo Mbeki and now Zuma.

Mbeki’s disastrous and unscientific denial of the causes of the AIDS epidemic cost the nation dearly. Inequality has not been tackled, high levels of crime persist and corruption is rising. In fact, a desire to hush up an arms deal scandal is said to lie at the heart of the bill that could threaten freedom of speech in South Africa. 

What happens in South Africa concerns the world at large today just as it did during the dark days of Apartheid.

A less democratic South Africa resulting from an un-amended bill would only heighten the democracy deficit in what have come to be known as the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) groupings.

India, South Africa and Brazil have already been siding with the China-Russia line on issues pertaining to gross violations of human rights and denial of democracy, whether in Burma, Syria, Sudan or elsewhere. The west's stance is not consistently pro-democracy or pro-human rights either, as shown by the reluctance to get involved in the upsurges in Egypt and Bahrain, for instance, in contrast to the interventionist alacrity that hydrocarbon-rich Iraq and Libya inspired. An ascendancy of the Beijing-Moscow consensus could only further frustrate the efforts of Arabs and others who have scored but minor victories following the pro-democracy uprisings of 2011. Pusillanimous India, South Africa and Brazil voting with China and Russia on, say, Syria would only prolong the suffering of the Syrian people.

South Africa’s well-wishers invest much hope, therefore, in the possibility of the South African bill being amended in line with the suggestions made by the Mandela Centre, especially a reintroduction of the public interest clause, meaning that transparency and accountability in public affairs would be respected.

For decades the world at large gave moral and material support to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, which was subject to boycotts by a majority of countries. Many nationalities including Indians proudly carried passports printed with the words “All countries except the Republic of South Africa”. The ANC flag and “Free Mandela” badges were acquired and brandished. The names of Mandela, Tutu and Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko (who died in police custody in 1977) have been almost constantly present in the global media. Readers and filmgoers have lapped up works on South Africa. Not only Rugby fans but many others continue to be electrified while reading about or seeing in films Mandela’s gesture in donning the jersey of the white-dominated national team, the Springboks, during the South African finals victory over the New Zealand All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup.

South Africa had a hand in the making of Mahatma Gandhi, who was to inspire Mandela himself as well as the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi among many others. Post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been the subject of countless journal articles, books and classroom discussions around the world. The pronouncements of South African judges such as Ismail Mahomed, Arthur Chaskalson and Albie Sachs or arguments of lawyers Bram Fischer and George Bizos are cited in courts and in law literature worldwide.

South African jurist Navanethem Pillai is now United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Another anti-Apartheid activist, Kumi Naidoo, is International Executive Director of Greenpeace and South African Christof Heyns is the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

A South Africa which means so much to the world and which has been a focus of the world’s attention for decades cannot be allowed to go down the path chosen by the current ANC leadership. Pro-democracy and pro-human rights forces will have to prevail.

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