South Africa slowly shredding democracy, in line with international best practice

Following yesterday’s passage by the National Assembly of the Protection of State Information Bill, and the Black Tuesday campaign’s comparison with the days of apartheid, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether ‘this takes us back to the dark days of apartheid’. And a lot of anger from those, including the government, who says it’s ridiculous to make that comparison.Black Tuesday protest in Cape Town - pic Odette Herbert

“The only result this unfortunate comparison and the planned campaign, in which people are urged to dress in black, will achieve is to dilute the real history of the Black Wednesday and insult the victims of apartheid’s barbaric laws,” said ANC Chief Whip Mathole Motshekga in a statement.

Of course, it would be quite wrong to suggest that we are now back in the darkest days of apartheid. But Motshekga’s statement ignores the trend. And the trend is away from freedom. His argument that “the rejection of a public interest defence is in line with international best practice on security in the US, Canada and the UK” is chilling, and not only because he is factually incorrect, as Pierre de Vos has pointed out (there is a public interest defence in Canada).

Because what passes for democracy these days in the US and UK is not any kind of democracy worth aspiring to. In the US, the combined effects of the creation of a massive security state and the near total corporate capture of the political class have reduced Americans’ democracy, at least at national level, to something little more substantial than reality TV. South Africans may agonise about corruption here, but in fact, US politics is far, far, far more corrupt. Even more scarily, US corruption is legal. (South African national hysteria on the issue of corruption is warranted, but always deserves proper contextualisation – it is not unusual, and corruption in government is matched or surpassed by the private sector.)

In other words, as journalist Peter Beaumont writes, “The west, even as it has preached the virtues of western democracy to other countries, has been moved inexorably towards an ever more procedural and debased version of democracy.”

Most South Africans are completely ignorant of the extent to which ancient freedoms and safeguards have been eroded or dismantled by recent US and UK governments, in the name of security, or “fighting terror”.

In the US, as Glenn Greenwald of Salon observes, “Overzealous prosecution of those who engage in peaceful political protest (which we’ve seen more and more of over the last several years) as well as rampant secrecy and the sprawling Surveillance State are the close cousins of excessive police force in both intent and effect: they are all about deterring meaningful challenges to those in power through the exercise of basic rights.”

And now, also in the name of “security”, South Africa follows the same dismal trends. Every way we turn we hear the same refrain, the oldest song of tyrants, “We’re taking your freedoms but giving you security”.

Now either Motshekga is not mentally decolonized, and truly believes that the US and UK are great examples of democracy, or he is extraordinarily cynical.

In the meantime, let’s not forget that there are two features of South African democracy that severely cripple it:

• The party list system, a feature of strict proportional representation, which makes MPs primarily accountable to their party leaders, and not to voters.

• The complete absence of any transparency of party funding, which makes party leaders primarily accountable to god only knows who.

The protests against the POIB are absolutely justified. Yet the most outrageous feature of South African society is continued, crippling economic injustice – and the media expresses very little anguish over that. And this fact probably undermines the Right2Know campaign. It is not true to say that it is all whites pointing fingers, yet there is an element of truth in the accusation. The campaign is championed by many that also screech about Julius Malema while largely ignoring the inconvenient truths he poses.

As Pierre de Vos notes, “the media (targeted at middle class readers) [shows little] concern for the well-being of these social movements whose interests do not always align with the interests of the middle classes served by the serious media.

… Coming soon: Race, class and the Protection of Information Bill.


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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

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