Opinionista Shaka Sisulu 29 November 2011

Black Tuesday relived

Today marks a week’s anniversary of the notoriously dubbed “Black Tuesday”, a throwback to the Black Wednesday of 1977 that saw the then apartheid government ban various publications and prominent journalists. But is the bill in question, the Protection of State Information Bill (ominously nicknamed Secrecy Bill) really all that it’s cracked up to be? Or is this just a storm in a teacup?

A little more than 100 years ago, a recently-admitted Supreme Court attorney (in the then-Transvaal Division) named Richard Msimang sat at his kitchen table with some of his similarly learned friends and considered the plight of black South Africans. There, plans were laid to found an organisation that would unite all African tribes in a fight against racism and its concomitant economic exploitation. Many months later the ANC was inaugurated.

A little under a week ago, one of Msimang’s great-great-grand-nieces took to BBM and Facebook to mobilise many of her peers to join in donning uniforms and brandishing placards held up as lightly as their pigtails, camping outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg and picketing the passing of the now infamous Protection of State Information Bill (Posib) two days prior. This bill was championed by the same organisation conceived by Msimang and his comrade; the same organisation known to have championed the rights of South Africa’s underrepresented for nearly a century: the ANC.

The obvious disjuncture between past and present that this anecdote illustrates is fascinating, perhaps a true symbol of the changes gripping South Africa today. But it begs some fundamental questions: is the ANC today that different from the ANC envisaged in its founding? Or is this just an inevitable phase in our development where class interests trump historical and racial allegiances? Or was this just a sign that a greater conspiracy to discredit and ultimately unseat the ANC was indeed working?

Let’s first speak to the latter, simply because conspiracy theories don’t get enough margin space in most publications to be examined thoroughly.

There is a strongly held notion among many ANC members that there exists a cabal of “anti-revolutionary forces” hellbent on reversing every progressive step the ANC and its alliance partners take. As Julius Malema, suspended ANC Youth League head, famously quipped, this cabal consists of “white monopoly capital(ists)”. It also ostensibly is said to consist of foreign forces; ex NP government and military figures, members of the opposition, of course; and, most notably, of key figures within the media – depending on whom you speak to and when.

This conspiracy theory, while difficult to prove, has held fast since the days of Codesa, when the then-government was often found wanting in integrity. It has since found resurgence in the instances of capital flight, the “brain drain”, resistance to transformation in every sector from business to sport, an aggressive Westminster Style of opposition politics and a steady consolidation of “the white vote” within South Africa.

In fact, this theory is the ideological opposite of the Swart and Rooi Gevaars, a sentiment that persists where it will regardless of any evidence to the contrary; one farm murder, however, will confirm immediately its merit.

Similarly, the mistrust that the Anti-NDR (“National Democratic Revolution” for the born-frees) Forces belief is founded upon is deep and often not without justification. And so as with all forms of paranoia the flags indicating the existence of such a cabal, as well as its drivers and champions, will change to fit new circumstances as they arise. As with all paranoia the golden rule applies: “just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you”. To many in the ANC it is clear that nothing will aid “them getting you” as impressively as the media.

So it was with interest that I noted many of my colleagues in the media savagely tear the bill to shreds. My rule of thumb in any political dispute is to ignore my first instinct. Then to listen. I did. And I began to hear alarmist refrains – oftentimes not backed up by much substance. By substance I mean an informed discourse on how a particular clause(s) endangers the freedoms of South Africans.

Sadly, many commentators had no real knowledge of the bill in question. In fact, it seemed few had taken the time to read the bill. It seemed as if we were in a feeding frenzy fuelled by one or two folks in the know who were trusted enough to have made a fair assessment of the bill. Their word would do, and every South African had to hear this word. This alarmed me.

The other thing that I noted was how what had begun as a loose alliance of opponents to the bill in question months before, had quickly rolled into South Africa’s number-one public protest campaign. And while the numbers of attendees that showed up at protest marches and pickets outside Parliament and Luthuli House paled in comparison with the numbers of people that joined in the Youth League’s Economic Freedom March of a few weeks ago, the weight of “the media’s” unified voice in print, on the air and in cyberspace would have put a herd of elephants to shame. It was as if there could be no greater cause for alarm for the ordinary South African. Unsurprisingly however, beyond much symbolic participation (a black dot on a BBM avatar) few “ordinary South Africans” got involved. The talk in townships I visited was that this wasn’t a bread-and-butter issue. Also, there was that little thing about protests being “anti-ANC”.

And that was the thing: people who themselves had a cursory knowledge of the bill were screaming blue murder, and becoming overnight activists for an issue that went right over many people’s heads; but it was the anti-ANC sentiment that seemed to unite “these forces”. Furthermore “this bill was meant to update an old Apartheid law and bring it into line with the constitution”. It was meant to diligently protect every individual’s right to privacy. Something the victims of the phone-tapping scandal at the hands of the media in the UK could certainly have done with.

Any self-respecting member of the ANC could gladly leave the analysis there. Well, I am fresh out of self respect perhaps, because I looked closer. I looked for the bill. And I found it. Well, last year’s version. I had heard officials speak of more than 132 changes having been made to the bill since then. So why on earth was I reading this antiquated version? Because it was the one on the government website.

Now things didn’t seem so cut-and-dry any longer. Because for any issues I may have had with the bill, I don’t know if they have been rectified or not. Or worse, worsened.

I heard ANC MP Ben Turok, whom I respect deeply, put his case forward: he had abstained for this same reason, he didn’t have the latest copy and couldn’t study it adequately before the vote was scheduled to take place. He says he broke his 17-year run of not missing a single Parliamentary vote and not voting against the ANC. This made sense to me. But then why was he being raked over the coals? In fact, why the urgent rush to push through a bill that had attracted so much contention and which, frankly, no one save a few bureaucrats knew intimately?

In the event, going from the old version, there indeed is much to be desired. Personally, I’m sceptical about the broad brush strokes of policy application over considerations of practicality. For example, the requirement of every department to report annually to their own minister as well as the Ministry of Intelligence on their respective classification and declassification protocols seems like an administrative nightmare. And in an environment where basic financial reporting as required by the auditor- general, for example, is often compromised seems rather ambitious.

But as some of the more erudite members of the campaign against the bill being passed in its current form (or rather then-form, who knows what is current) pointed out, the silver bullet was the exclusion of a public-interest clause. Such a clause basically means that if the information being “leaked” is in the public interest or in the public domain (we already know about it) than the handlers of said information should be exempt from doing jail time.

Of course my fellow journos have pointed to this as nothing more than an attempt to silence investigative journalism. I suspect this view is disingenuous. There are more expedient ways to do so. But when every week there is a new plethora of “corruption exposés”, often involving senior members of government or the ruling party, then the lack of such a clause does indeed seem sinister.

Many editors themselves have, however, not covered their publications or their profession in much glory. The level of slander, innuendo and barely acknowledged mistakes are the equivalent of the United States’ capital punishment record, more notorious for what has gone wrong than right. This in turn fuels intra-ANC conspiracy beliefs.

But importantly, where the ANC comes from is a hard place of sanction, restriction and overwhelming might placed in a few people’s hands that was atrociously abused over the years. Thus the ANC, having being a champion for the longest times of such freedoms should be the first to defend them. Even, and especially, when they are not convenient. The public-interest or an adequate media-interest clause should have been forthcoming from the ruling party’s initial submissions.

And so it is painfully ironic to watch the ANC, my ANC, surrender the moral high ground, and slowly begin to cede its status of the “people’s party” to various different organising factions. Something is amiss when you and your government are the subject of a different protest every month from every perceivable quarter of society. Perhaps what is amiss is my appreciation that governing is difficult. Or perhaps it is that governing seems to be eroding our principles.

Ramming the bill through Parliament, in a show of political might, makes a mockery of the movement that boasts a history of rich internal democracy wherein every branch gets a say on some of the ANC’s toughest policy decisions. Ignoring the chasm of credibility that continued reports of malfeasance, coupled with weak disciplinary action against those implicated, in defending the stated intent of the bill will not be remembered as the ANC’s finest strategic decision.

Lastly, there is another little tale from the annals of ANC history to look to, one where the Rivonia Trialists were, in the ’80s, finally allowed access to TV, albeit only to select programming. One day an episode of the Cosby Show came on that elated them immensely. On the wall of the eldest son’s room was a “Free Mandela” poster. “We knew we had won,” my grandfather once recounted, “our struggle was in the popular culture”. The media has always been an important tool in getting across the aims and objectives of the ANC; what then has happened to the understanding that “one gets more flies with honey than vinegar”?

How does it get to this, the movement of millions, of the ages embroiled in a public spat that it will struggle to recover from, in the name of a few individuals who decide that the policy direction of the bill is sound, and then further decide that it must be defended by all ANC MPs come hell or high water, regardless of their own beliefs? Perhaps I should remind my comrades of the other Julius (Caesar)’s words: “In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes.” In the contestation of ideas, this episode has been an event of importance.

And yet it is the trivial things that sees two branches of the same family tree protest the same organisation with, dare I say, equal enthusiasm. And that for me is the most profound tragedy of this Protection of Information Bill episode. DM