The Fight Over Secrecy in a New Democracy

Before arriving in South Africa, a professor sent me an informative article concerning the nation’s recent history of free speech issues and the newly proposed “Secrecy Bill” and Media Tribunal that could serve as a significant threat to journalists.  In “South Africa: The New Threat to Freedom”, Nobel Prize winning South African writer Nadine Gordimer explains how the Publications and Entertainment Act prohibited thousands of publications from 1950 – 1990, in addition to popular films such as Jesus Christ Superstar and A Clockwork Orange.  It is clear that the leaders of the apartheid regime desired to forbid South Africans from accessing taboo or controversial works, including those published by their own national talents.

The new, post-apartheid South Africa has certainly prided itself on its long-awaited democratic reforms that guarantee fundamental freedoms to all citizens.  Nonetheless, the Media Tribunal proposed by the government may challenge a number of freedoms guaranteed to members of the press.  This tribunal would require investigative journalists to have all topics approved before they begin to conduct their research or write their stories.  Whether the information submitted by the journalist is a threat to national security would be at the discretion of any government official.

New legislation from the South African government would not only affect journalists, but the public at large.  Under the Protection of State Information Bill (“The Secrecy Bill”) passed last November, anyone “who expose(s) the rampant corruption by individuals in government, industry, and finance” could face a prison sentence.  This could even lead to limited freedoms of expression for a number of writers and artists within the thriving South African arts and culture scene who may create avant-garde, satirical, or protest works that criticize the government.  To make matters worse, it seems that these controversial measures are merely the first steps in President Jacob Zuma’s plan for South Africa’s “Second Transition”.  The initial transition was from the apartheid regime, and the second one seeks to improve the overall quality of life for all citizens in this new democracy.  It appears that this transition will underhandedly involve the reduction of the power of the national judiciary, which Zuma believes should be subordinate to the powers of Parliament so that party opponents could not somehow utilize the courts to “co-govern the country” and supersede the power of the government.

These arguably extreme measures to prevent the exposure of national corruption scandals no doubt casts a questionable light on the leaders in power.  It is clear that there are mixed emotions regarding the public image and effectiveness of the ANC.  On the one hand, this 100-year-old organization has been responsible for a tremendous amount of growth in South Africa since its initial establishment as a direct apartheid resistance movement.  When the apartheid government essentially labeled them a terrorist organization and sought to turn all whites against them, they remained ceaseless in their efforts to take down a corrupt regime.  These methods of resistance became organized as strikes, boycotts, and eventually more militaristic efforts.  When they finally did become elected into power after the collapse of the apartheid regime, most would argue that the ANC passed many progressive reforms, including the abolishment of the death penalty and controversial segregation laws such as the Bantu Education Act.  It seemed that blacks could finally live in a world where they no longer were forced to assume an inferior position to the minority race in power.

Because of this recent history that is still very close to home for many South Africans, most of the black individuals I have spoken with in Johannesburg and Durban have expressed that they are trapped in a political quagmire.  When I asked for their thoughts on the proposed Media Tribunal and Secrecy Bill, they immediately acknowledged that these measures were not only unconstitutional, but also a “reissuance of apartheid”.  Nonetheless, while they are mostly disappointed with these proposed laws and with the failure of the ANC to fulfill a large number of its promises to the black community, they could never vote for any other party.  Since the history of apartheid is so recent, it is clear that the National Party continues to represent the party of the former oppressor while the ANC symbolizes the liberator who will always defend the rights of people of all colors.  Even Nadine Gordimer, who is of caucasian descent, expressed at the end of her critical article that she “actively supported the African National Congress during the liberation struggle against apartheid” and “continue(s) to support the ideals on which the ANC was founded.”  With these strong allegiances in mind, it is difficult to predict whether the ANC will ultimately follow through on its promises or resort to less than exemplary tactics to maintain its majority power.

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