Secrecy in South Africa by Margie Orford

During the Black Tuesday protest outside parliament, activist Zackie Achmat lowered the South African flag to half-mast. A policeman with a roll crime scene tape in his hand stepped forward as Achmat was about to lower the second flag. To the crowd’s chant of ‘Secrecy’s for skelms/ we have the right to know’, the policeman stopped him and proceeded to wrap the black and yellow tape – nature’s danger colours – around the locked gates. An emblematic act: inside the shuttered House the Protection of Information Bill was being passed by a well-whipped majority of 259.

Earlier this year South African PEN hosted a reading to honour Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer and chair of Independent Chinese PEN. We gathered about a dozen writers who read from their work. All of them had been incarcerated by the apartheid government for what they said and wrote, for the information that they revealed about the injustices perpetrated by the state on its people. It was a moving event because it was a chilling reminder of just how recently South Africa was imprisoning its writers and others who spoke truth to power.

That chill was prescient. The Secrecy Bill, which civil society organizations, a handful of parliamentarians, trade unions, and the press have widely rejected, is a return to the brutal forms of censorship, state control and bullying associated with the apartheid government. The draconian secrecy laws currently being foisted on South Africa are jackboots directed at the face of human rights culture and democracy so carefully built and nurtured in South Africa in the last seventeen years.

The redacted story about the arms deal – a sore that has festered while our democracy has tried to bloom – that the Mail & Guardian ran evoked all too starkly the memory of that time. As was its intention.

Nadine Gordimer, on the occasion of her recent 88th birthday celebrations, spoke of her shock when she saw the ‘unbelievable sight’ of the blacked out front page of last week’s Mail & Guardian. It was, she said, only the ‘present example of what will happen with the passing of the Protection of Information Bill. We cannot accept censorship to blind our eyes. Tinkering with this bill must be rejected. We must reject this bill outright.’

Gordimer, the Nobel laureate, is an honorary vice-president of PEN International to which South African PEN is one of the 144 affiliated centres worldwide. PEN brings together writers, journalists and poets in the common belief that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This newly passed Protection of Information Bill (it does have some more hoops to jump, we must make sure it stumbles) is the polar opposite to such democratic principles of freedom and openness. Governments and long-dominant political elites like to keep their skeletons closeted and now, with the passing of the Secrecy Bill, their spooks have free rein. A culture of secrecy breeds duplicity, paranoia and ultimately violence. The lengthy prison sentences that this travesty of a law contains are both cruel and unusual.

In a 1994 speech, Nelson Mandela said that: ‘it is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.’

The ruling, and increasingly remote, political elite has much to hide. This much is evident with the slew of corruption and abuse-of-power cases that have come before the Public Protector, in the courts and in the press. This has been the impetus behind the Secrecy Bill. Why else would legislation without any kind of public interest defence and which has provoked widespread antipathy amongst the spectrum of South African society be forced through?

To force through a law that flies in the face of that hard-won constitution, of the social and economic and political rights so many fought so hard for, is an abuse of the social contract that binds elected officials to the citizens they represent. In a democracy with a vigorous civil society and a free press, it is only with legislated secrecy that the extensive breeches of the contract between elected representatives and citizens can be hidden.

Margie Orford is Executive Vice President of South African PEN

Read the joint statement on the South African Secrecy Bill by PEN International and South African PEN here.