South Africa’s Hypocrisy

There is not much in this world that I find more detestable than hypocrisy, though we all fall victim to it once in a while until others remind us of it. But to plow through, despite public outcry, with an act that defies what you yourself have preached for years, an act that flies in the very face of what you’ve once touted as your most basic convictions, that is a crime.

Photo courtesy of CNN

I am of course speaking of the new “Protection of State Information Bill,” also known as the “Secrecy Act” which was just passed by South Africa’s National Assembly. It basically gives the ANC-led government much wider discretion in declaring state secrets, imposing jail terms on those who make them public. If this was just a matter of national security, it would be understandable, but the ongoing feud between the government and the Mail & Guardian, one of South Africa’s most reputable newspapers, over the dealings, some say corrupt dealings, of Mac Maharaj, a senior government spokesman, shows that the government is willing to declare anything a state secret to avoid a possibly embarrassing disclosure of corruption within its ranks.

The Secrecy Act was passed this week by 229 to 107 votes, with all but two members of the ANC voting for it. Just to be clear, this is the very same ANC fighting for civil rights during the apartheid years, decrying infringements on the freedom of the press during that era. In fact, over thirty years ago, on October 19th, 1977 and what was later dubbed “Black Wednesday,” the apartheid regime banned two newspapers and detained its editors, the beginning of what became an increasingly harsh attempt to silence the press. One of the crimes of those two newspapers? Campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and other ANC members from their imprisonment on Robben Island. If you want to get a feel for the peril some editors put themselves in by refusing to abide by these harsh laws, watch the movie Cry Freedom.

This is why Nelson Mandela’s silence regarding the Secrecy Act is particularly baffling. Sure, he is an old man, but you would think the keepers of his legacy might be more outspoken. I visited the “Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory” where I found a tribute to those courageous journalists who “sacrificed their freedom in their quest to inform the public about the realities of our country” in 1977. Twenty years later, at a commemorative event, Mr. Mandela said:

“Instrumental in keeping us in touch and informed, in the dissemination of both the good news and the bad, the sensational and the mundane, has been the media. I wish to pay tribute on this occasion to their unflinching, and often ill-appreciated, commitment to their task and their contribution to a more informed and hence a better world.”

I did find an “expression of concern” about the Secrecy Act on the same website, but that’s the strongest wording you will find there. Maybe that is just in keeping with Mandela’s moderation and conciliatory approach in his later life, but I was hoping for more. After all, he is the one his successors would most listen to.

The person who is indeed very outspoken about his opposition to this act is Desmond Tutu. It’s always refreshing to listen to him rant and rave, much as he did during the recent spat over the Dalai Lama’s visit (the South African government refused to issue him a visa, if you’ll remember). All opposition parties were opposed as well, in addition to two members of the ANC itself, who are now facing harsh reprimands and perhaps worse to have defied their leaders.

The arguments against the bill and why anyone who ever fought for freedom of the press during apartheid should be vehemently opposed are well described here. To be sure, I didn’t actually read the Secrecy Act and am aware that it might not be as draconian as it is painted by the South African press. I’m just repeating general opinions I have heard and read, which I admit is not the proper journalist path. So I welcome a discussion of the legislation and its pros and cons. But it is undeniable that the ANC, now in power, has compromised on some of its core principles from the time when it was fighting those in power. We can hope that the Constitutional Court, before which no doubt this piece of legislation will end up, is more uncompromising on the principles of democracy and freedom of expression.

Until then, maybe all of us will have to think twice before we hit “publish.”

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