Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Closing down democratic space is what is really counter-revolutionary

Private and unpublished correspondence by the South African poet Roy Campbell recently came into my possession. In a letter to Francis C. Slater, written in Rome sometime between September 1938 and February 1939, Campbell writes that “journalists are the greatest Social Poison the world has yet seen”.

He goes on: “It is a treat to live in a country where the journalists are muzzled: I have always regarded them as the most poisonous parasites that ever fattened by making trouble and harassing the nerves of the people.”

Tellingly, and it shouldn’t surprise one, the letter continues with a defence of Fascism: “You get a very rough and distorted idea [from the media] of men who like Hitler and Mussolini have saved their countries.”

He complains: “But now they [journalists] are working up trouble about Hitler’s jew purge… it is difficult to understand what the hysteria is about in the British Press against Hitler.”

In the end, Campbell did land up in the Allied Forces (appropriately enough as a military censor for part of his tour of duty). Professionally he never really recovered, thanks to his Fascist views, and unlike Ezra Pound, he wasn’t too great a poet to ignore.

I use Campbell as an example to show that even people you might think would know better, often don’t.

It has been unfortunate that the debate around the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the “secrecy bill”) has become couched in the public mind as a battle between the liberal bourgeois media and a majority government. Supporters of the majority party have taken umbrage, seeing the media as tilting at windmills, basing objections on what the government is alleged to be plotting.

Many in government quite sincerely do not believe the secrecy bill was designed to cover up corruption or to put an end to investigative journalism. The point is that government’s and for that matter journalists’ motivations are not actually the issue (therefore I won’t conjecture on why the secrecy bill has garnered such political will-power behind it that it could be ramrodded through the National Assembly, when so many vital pieces of legislation are often left to decompose for years).

On SABC radio, some callers against the secrecy bill (apart from the usual rabid right-wing regulars) made convincing arguments for why it was bad for democracy in its current form. Many in favour of the bill however, did not make cogent argument for it or rebuff the criticisms. Those supporting the bill merely resorted to attacking its critics alleged motivations or launched into diatribes about the media – “You’re just anti-ANC”. Most bizarre of all, activists have been accused of being foreign spies. Tell that to former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils or the late Kader Asmal who both opposed the bill in its current form. It was so sad, and so idiotic, I had to switch the radio off.

The debate in the National Assembly wasn’t much better, with ANC MP Landers declaring, “Those opposed to this Bill want P W Botha’s 1982 Act to remain in our statute books.” Such a puerile manipulation of the truth is risible, and as IFP MP JH van der Merwe was quick to point out, MP Landers “attacks Mr P W Botha, but he was a Deputy Minister in his Cabinet”.

The Communist Party’s Ben Turok slipped out of the assembly instead of voting for the bill, but SACP Secretary General Blade Nzimande did vote, even as the workers of COSATU prepare to take the bill to the Constitutional Court. Nzimande, who happens to be the minister in charge of our universities, was quoted saying that opposition to the secrecy bill was just “titillating, white suburban politics”. There is truth in this, but it is a cause for alarm, for those who will be hardest hit and most affected by state secrecy are the poor. Historically of course, the perverters of communism were always big on secrets.

What most South Africans hoped for after the demise of the apartheid regime was an open society where widespread state secrecy would be a thing of the past. But we don’t even have to look to the apartheid era to find innumerable examples of where the government has abused our right to information to cover up its vices. The last decade has shown that our own intelligence services are far from trustworthy. We even had a sitting president tell us that.

The ANC government may not be behaving much differently from governments all over the world, who want to hide what they do from the public gaze. They do not like being watched. Yet given our history and the fragility of our democracry, we should have learned the lesson and be aiming to be one of the most transparent countries in the world. Instead, the ANC Chief Whip holds up the United States of America as an example of best practice, a country which after a decade of extraordinary and opaque security legislation seems firmly on the road to becoming a police state unless it is checked by civil society.

Unlike the human individual, the state should have very little right to privacy. We know from bitter experience where secrecy leads. That is why the ANC as principal architects of the constitution drafted it the way they did, having been on the receiving end of a totalitarian state for decades.”“Never, never, and never again,” Nelson Mandela promised us.

But with transparency comes accountability, and unfortunately there is too much to be embarrassed about.

To sum up, if anything is counter-revolutionary, it is the Protection of State Information Bill, not its critics.

This has been a fraught debate and many are tiring of it. I thought it was appropriate though for a first blog on Thought Leader. Democracy is the hardest political system in the world to maintain, and there is no way to maintain it without transparency. Like HIV/AIDS, the threat cannot be restated enough, and civil society must make its objections heard repeatedly, until the matter is settled. And if the secrecy bill passes in its present form in the NCOP and the matter is settled in favour of government, I for one won’t shut up about it thereafter either.

But this is not an era to be despondent. For as Wikileaks and live-streaming video technologies have shown the world, any government attempting to restrict our freedom to information is flying in the face of the 21st century. Would Roy Campbell be penning those letters from Rome if videos of concentration camps and mass shootings were being uploaded on YouTube by whistleblowers in the Wehrmacht?

If you want to know why, based on the substance of the bill, the ANC is incorrect in its support for this bill, and why it is a threat to your freedom to know what is happening in your own country, then read further here:

Glenda Daniels in the Mail & Guardian gives a succinct summary of the major flaws in the Bill.

COSATU’s Zwelinzima Vavi outlines what is wrong with the Bill.

Prof Pierre de Vos gives a constitutional law perspective on the numerous manifest failings of the Bill.

And visit the resources page of the Right2Know campaign.

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  • The government must speak to the people not the media
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    • Judith

      I too will be protesting if NCOP gives it the go-ahead!

    • J Stalin

      “What most South Africans hoped for after the demise of the apartheid regime was an open society where widespread state secrecy would be a thing of the past. ” Possibly. But if you study ANC rhetoric from the 80’s when most South Africans should have known better, it is pretty clear that the end game was never freedom, democracy or transparency of information. Or liberty of the individual for that matter. The National Democratic Revolution was never national, nor democratic. It was always about an elite political class, allied to organised crime, seizing power and adopting the worst elements of both fascism and communism. Read the material – it’s all out there.

    • Max

      Yes but you are obviously speaking from the position of white inc. so your views not only don’t count, but also they actually are potentially harmful because they help to buttress white inc’s dominance and its persistent refusal to embrace change. Don’t you see that? Viva ANC

    • Trotsky

      “It has been unfortunate that the debate around the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the “secrecy bill”) has become couched in the public mind as a battle between the liberal bourgeois media and a majority government.” Forget the word ‘majority’ – it’s a weasel word, and meaningless. It’s a minority posing as a majority. It’s an elite prepared to do anything to maintain power. An elite so utterly without principle, it is from despair not hope that we remind ourselves that the ‘free world’ saw the ANC as a bastion of ‘liberation’ (I use the word with tremendous cynicism and an uncontrollable dark humour) during the struggle. We need to face facts here, and the first fact is that any totalitarian movement is deeply contemptuous of weakness, and equally contemptuous of appeals to its better instincts. Even Heinrich Himmler said he had appeals from 80 million national socialists for more enlightened policies. There are few better instincts left to appeal to.

    • http://www.law.harvad.edu Free Inquiry

      The Secrecy Bill as it is called like other governments intelligence Acts, have a real potential to hide corrupt activities and but that cannot be the only reason our government mustn’t pass it as law. There are other legitimate interests which ought to be protected by our government. Journalists in finding information about people often do so unlawfully. We have seen how brutal and thoughtless journalists could be with people’s lives with the case of Manto where her medical records were stolen from a Cape Town hospital and a paper unwittingly published such information. You said ‘the last decade has shown that our own intelligence services are far from trustworthy’. On your own version you approve the so-called the Secrecy Bill. We must strengthen our intelligence agencies because it is good to do so, even through perceived stringent laws such as this. By the way the government does publish reports about its activities and you do have other avenues if you want the state information such as Promotion of Access to Information Act which requires citizens and yes including journalists to follow procedure in obtaining information from government, unlike the theft of Manto’s medical records. I agree with Blade, this uproar is white suburban paranoia of black governance”

    • http://www.cindynel.co.za peter

      Quite true that people whom one would think should know better often don’t. Always better to examine the evidence and make up one’s own mind, just taking care to put the brain into gear before coming to a conclusion.

    • http://SignalWebs.com Citizen Mntu

      Congrats on an excellent first blog Brent. Quite so, civil society must never let this go. It is our duty as Citizens to watch over the democracy that is ours, and never to let government have its way without our approval and consent.

      Like pharte-gas, government will always fill an empty space it it can. And it is all too easy to do or say nothing about it, and then we have a Hitler, Mussolini, Amin, Mugabe, Gaddafi, or suchlike on our hands, and it’s the end of civil rights and civic freedoms.

      Anoher point: The ANC had better wake up and grow up and understand that all Citizens are equally valid, whether they dwell in ‘suburbs’, ‘urbs’, ‘camps’, ‘rurals’, ‘townships’, houses, compounds, huts, flats, shacks, or a hedge and a ditch.

      Thanks again and best wishes for 2012.

    • MLH

      Thoroughly enjoyable reading and an excellent example of a lesson that should have been learnt years ago. It makes the point that, if there is a third force in this country, it is the present government. Its very determination that the bill means no ill, indicates its obsessive will to remain in power forever.
      I still believe the media focus on the wrong thing: our people desperately need to be educated as to the possibilities and probabilities of life under the bill. I understand that it is easy to suppose their livelihoods are the most direct and damning result that could evolve, but it is the life of everyman that counts more. Once the media has a plan to get to all citizens in their own languages to explain the position, more people will support their campaign; the signs are already there to see.

    • jandr0

      @Free Inquiry: “Journalists in finding information about people often do so unlawfully. We have seen how brutal and thoughtless journalists could be with people’s lives with the case of Manto where her medical records were stolen from a Cape Town hospital and a paper unwittingly published such information.”

      In which case: prosecute the journalist, don’t muzzle the whole country!

      “By the way the government does publish reports about its activities and you do have other avenues if you want the state information such as Promotion of Access to Information Act which requires citizens and yes including journalists to follow procedure in obtaining information from government, unlike the theft of Manto’s medical records.”

      Sorry, you trust government (and here I mean ANY government, not just South Africa’s government) too much. NEVER EVER do that. Throughout history, government has been caught out lying to their citizens too many times.

      In our particular case, government responds way, way too slow… and with the nepotism and cronyism around, it means the corrupt have sufficient time to cover up.

      This has nothing to do with race or colour. This is about citizens needing protection against their government. You need a wake up, brother.

    • Partial Observer

      While I whole heartedly agree with the sentiments of this piece, the supporters of the bill have heard and ignored them already.
      Therefore it is the last point that is most important. It implies a call to action on the part of freedom-loving South African ex-pats (of all political persuasions). If the bill passes, it will require work to ensure that the technology and organization is in place outside the country to allow information in the public interest to be published and widely distributed back into the country. This can be done (as it is done by ex-pat activists protesting all the world’s totalitarian regimes), but requires careful planning and execution.
      The systems will have to ensure that contributions from whistleblowers are easy to upload and completely untraceable, as these brave souls will be the ones risking imprisonment. Once information is uploaded, distribution must go beyond just Twitter and YouTube to include the world’s major TV news networks, as this is the most effective way to get the information back to the SA public.
      The Arab Spring and Wikileaks have shown us what to do. We have the technical know-how. If the Bill stands, let’s create the farce of the SA govt trying to censor Al Jazeera and CNN for broadcasting details of the next corruption scandal.
      Finally, let’s thank the SA govt for giving us this opportunity. Some of us have been looking for a good activist cause ever since apartheid ended.

    • Chris Roux

      Wise conclusions indeed and some lessons to be soberly learned from the past.

      However, as with all the ANC’s strategies and counter-productive actions, they have the advantage of a huge number of illiterate and uninformed masses on their side which even a cursory study of political history will reveal, always carries the day.

      It has always been a strategy of totalitarian regimes to keep the masses uninformed of the true state of affairs. The Nationalsit government were experts at this. If we are to take some heart in the advent of cyberspace communications, how does one still deal with a numerical superiority of ignorant fanatics whom the ruling political elite rally and exploit for their own advantage? Great stuff Brent but the millions of important voters who need to reflect on these truths do not read such articles; they come nowhere near the space which should be occupied for democracy to prevail and they actually dont care .

    • Bovril24

      “Historically of course, the perverters of communism were always big on secrets”.

      I don’t understand the intended meaning of this – unless it is (correctly) that communism always depended on the suppression and perversion of truth for its very existence, as did fascism, being the other side of the same coin.

      My real concern is about the emerging faith on the ‘democracy’ of the internet to maintain international political transparency. Sorry, but that’s already being ‘dealt with’.

      If it was possible to tap phones, so it is even easier for governments to tap or interrupt/cut off internet traffic and it is already being done. China is the obvious culprit but many countries, notably Iran, the US, other European countries and, yes, even SA, are into it.

      If you can use key words to sell products you can also use them to filter out words or phrases deemed unpolitical, reactionary or not in the national interest – and their sources, right down to the individual. There are a number of independant websites that already monitor this kind of activity, by country, (e.g. http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org.)

      .Check them out and ask yourself how it will be before they mysteriously disappear.

    • Shaman sans Frontieres

      Good and incisive blog, Brent Meersman. But we also need to keep repeating that it’s not just journalists and the media that are likely to be threatened by the bill. It’s every single citizen of this Republic who may have access to incriminatory state information and wants to blow the whistle. It is a totalitarian blow to every intended aspect of an open and just society.

      I too will join forces with every other person and agency in the land and abroad to counter this bill if NCOP passes it and Zuma signs it into law. And I am certain, too, that it won’t pass the Constitutional Court if it is challenged there. And I am further certain that our dreadful new fascist chauvinists will appeal against any such blocking of their intentions, and will even attempt to get around the Constitutional Court in some way.

      ‘The truth will set you free’.

    • http://blogroid.wordpress.com Blogroid 2012

      Further to Bovril24’s observation on the closing down of the Internet and your own concerns about the drift to modern neo-feudalism [or alternately RULE by impervious elites] i understand that the USA, the alleged “land of the free, formalised its 10 year incarceration of so-called ‘prisoners of war’ at ‘GITMO’ [Guantanamo Bay, for the uninitiated] when the allegedly “Democrat’ President, Barak Obama signed legislation on New years eve [2011] allowing for the indefinite detention without trial of anyone considered to be an enemy of the [US] State. [You'll remember that when the old SA gov't did this they were internationally condemned as a fascist State.... so far i have seen no murmur about it in any 'free' media.]

      Allegedly Obama did this on a golf course in Hawaii… symbolically emphasising that the world is now controlled by the mysterious 1%… with whom our own ‘elites of the elites’ are undoubtedly also choosing to be associated.

      As further testimony to this drift to neo-feudalism i refer you back to your reference to Campbell’s observation regarding journalists and suggest you [and other concerned readers] begin to take note of the frequency with which the word RULE has come to replace the word GOVERN in the reportage lexicon of contemporary political, allegedly democratic, dialogue.

    • http://hismastersvoice.wordpress.com/ The Creator

      Actually, I’ve read the Protection of State Information Bill. I’d lay heavy odds that you haven’t. It’s a bill providing for the severe punishment of spies and traitors. Anyone who reveals secret information but isn’t a spy or a traitor has to have a Very Good Reason for doing so, such as that revealing the secret information serves the interests of the public (yes, Virginia, there is a public interest clause) or the environment. And anyone who makes information secret in order to cover up state crimes or avoid embarrassment may be sent to jail for five years. It’s actually a bloody good law, and in fairness, some of the complaining about it led to it being considerably improved.

      But complaining about it now is just bigotry or ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with the Bill except that nobody should trust the present government to use it wisely.

      What all that has to do with that tedious little fascist pipsqueak Roy Campbell eludes me (although in fairness he did write one good poem, the little one attacking Jan Smuts).