Business, Finance & Economics

South Africa's secrecy bill: Death of democracy?


Julius Malema, the former leader of the ANC's youth wing, addresses a crowd on Oct. 27, 2011, in Johannesburg. Protests like this one are a sign of tough times ahead for South Africa


Alexander Joe

BOSTON — Many South Africans are saying the new secrecy bill marks the "death of democracy" in South Africa.

The bill, which was passed by South Africa's lower house of parliament Tuesday, has not killed South Africa's democracy. Not yet.

But the new legislation to stifle reporting on corruption is a malignant cancer. And it could eventually be fatal to South Africa's constitution and democracy.

The controversial “Protection of State Information Bill” was pushed through the legislature by the ruling party, the African National Congress, and passed by 229 votes to 107, despite strong objections from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, opposition parties, journalists and even from within the ANC itself.

Under the new legislation, conviction of exposing state secrets carries a jail sentence of up to 25 years.

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The bill's passage was "a dark day for our democracy," said Lindiwe Mazibuko, who leads the parliamentary caucus of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's main opposition party. "The ANC has abandoned the values of its founders."

Other opponents of the bill include Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said the legislation is "insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism ... and that makes the state answerable only to the state."

Nelson Mandela, is a stalwart ANC member, South Africa's first post-apartheid president and also a Nobel peace laureate, yet his office also expressed reservations about the bill.

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Critics charge the new regulation will prevent the press from publishing exposes of government corruption and will undermine South Africa’s 17-year-old democracy and its liberal constitution. 

For its part the ANC says South Africa needed to update apartheid-era legislation defining secrets and set out punishments for divulging them, and that it has no intention of trampling on free expression and a muckraking media.

It is expected the bill will be approved by the upper house senate and signed into law by President Jacob Zuma, most likely before the end of the year.

There are already plans to challenge the measure at the Constitutional Court.

Critics wore black and staged protests in front of the ANC's Johannesburg headquarters during morning rush hour Tuesday, and in front of parliament in Cape Town, according to the Associated Press.

One of the strongest criticisms of the bill is that it does not have a provision that journalists could avoid jail by claiming that they were acting in the public interest.

Activists fear the adoption of the measure in South Africa, known for having one of the continent's freest and most open constitutions, could influence other governments in the region.

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If implemented, the bill "will unacceptably curtail both the right to access information and freedom of expression, which are the foundation of a democratic society," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The manner in which the government pushed this bill through parliament, instead of proceeding with consultations as promised, as well as the secrecy embedded in this legislation, send very worrying signs about the government's commitment to transparency."

Prominent ANC members also have opposed the bill, among them former state security minister Ronnie Kasrils.

The bill makes it a crime to divulge state secrets. It also makes it a crime for an official to withhold information to conceal wrongdoing or incompetence, or merely to avoid embarrassment.

South Africa's minister of state security, Siyabonga Cwele, says the bill isn't about regulating the media or covering up corruption — only protecting South Africans from outside enemies. He said South Africa has been under "an increasing threat of espionage" because a previous 1982 bill didn't offer strong enough deterrents for offenders.

"The foreign spies continue to steal our sensitive information in order to advantage their nations at the expense of advancement of South Africa and her people," said Cwele in a statement on the ANC's website.

For years the ANC has had antagonistic relations with the country’s lively press, which has uncovered numerous corruption scandals.

Last month, President Zuma was forced to fire two cabinet ministers and to suspend the country's police chief after the government's public protector investigated extravagant travel and questionable real estate deals. These allegations surfaced first in local newspaper reports.

The ruling ANC party is moving against the press, which it sees as a white-controlled impediment to the party's continued rule. The ANC does not value the numerous corruption scandals uncovered by the press in the 17 years since the end of apartheid nor does it see the media as a valid force to hold the government accountable.

The new legislation and the recent appointment of questionable but malleable Supreme Court chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng show that President Jacob Zuma is working to dismantle, piece by piece, South Africa's hard won democracy.

Add to that the calls for nationalization of South Africa's mining industry and white-owned farms by ANC firebrand Julius Malema.

All of this is set against the rising anger of black South Africans, many of whose lives have not improved at all since the end of apartheid.

South Africa's democracy is not yet dead. But it is definitely in for challenging times.