A CLASSIC EXAMPLE of the threats our putative open society faces played out last week – Sakina Kamwendo, talkshow host on the SABC’s Metor FM, was censored, raising a rightful storm of protest. The incident would have saddened – but not surprised – former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson.
‘Constitutions are written for the future,’ he said. ‘One of the lessons of history is that rights are vulnerable, and when governments come under stress there is a temptation to brush rights aside, to secure their goals and entrench their power.’ He said that he had often before warned against the erosion of rights and of checks and balances. ‘The first steps to that end,’ he said, ‘are particularly dangerous, for if allowed to pass without objection, they open the way for a political culture in which this is treated as acceptable. ‘There are signs that this is what is happening in our country.’ (Carmel Rickard, paying tribute to Arthur Chaskalson, 2 December 2012.
In one short week we lost both Professor Jakes Gerwel and Chaskalson. One by one, the members of the immense generation that fought apartheid are slipping through our fingers, and with them, a huge heritage is being lost.
The heritage is one of knowledge: a knowledge of both the fragility and the preciousness of our rights. A knowledge of how necessary it is, constantly and urgently, to defend those rights. A knowledge of the tactics used by repressive governments to exploit loopholes we allow to develop in our rights. An intimate knowledge of the tactics citizens can use to fight back.
Back in 2003, I wrote to an American friend facing threats to the open society following 9/11: don’t allow them to dilute your rights, I said; in South Africa, we’ve lived without them, you are so used to simply accepting that you have them that you may think it is a fair price to pay for security, but it’s not. If you don’t object vociferously when the first laws are passed, the ones that don’t actually impinge on you, you will find your right to protest defanged and your voice silenced when they attack a right that DOES matter to you.
Remember? “First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
(Pastor Martin Niemöller, the text approved by the Martin-Niemöller-Foundation)
But now I wonder if many South Africans – especially those without painful personal knowledge of repression – have lost touch with that heightened sense of the value of our rights. The generation represented by Chaskalson (who was 81 when he died) and Gerwel (66) was a grand and fortunate set of people who lived through fear and trial by fire, but were also alive to see the dawn of a new day in which our rights were secured to us by a wonderful constitution.
Unfortunately, Chaskalson also saw the current government ram the Protection of State Information Bill through the National Council of Provinces ad hoc committee – one of those ‘first steps’ of which he spoke. We are soothingly told by spokesperson Moloto Mathapo that this is not a ‘media bill’, that it’s not about covering up corruption but about balancing “classification of sensitive State information in the interest of national security with openness and transparency”.
Yeah, and maybe, just maybe you really mean that. Maybe, just maybe, the crop of people in government at present will be cautious and will carefully consider the good of the public (who are their employers, after all) in any actions based on this act. But will future governments?
Once these things become part of law, an accepted legal backdrop, they will be used to the nth degree – look at the history of the Nats in this country, and repressive regimes all over the world. (As an example of how broadly worded laws can be used in a most repressive way, consider the case of Ivan Moseyev, a 54-year-old Russian who’s been collecting folk tales and compiling a dictionary of the Arctic Pomor people, descendants of Norwegian trappers, with financial grants from Norway. He’s facing charges of high treason under a law which defines espionage as including “furnishing financial, material, technical, consultative or other help to a foreign state, or international or foreign organisation”.)
If you think this is all beside the point – you just want to get on with living your life and doing business, after all – think again.
Transparency and openness are critical to economic life as much as to political life. Wherever secrecy and deceit are allowed to breed, they spill over into all of life, affecting the conditions in which we live and work.
Repressive laws can also be used to control business – if a time comes when a government feels the need to do so. So it behoves us all – in our own interests and in the interests of future generations – to become active, engaged citizens who are willing to take up the cudgels and lobby, advocate, protest, do whatever is necessary to create a society which is more rather than less open. Start by protesting censorship at the public broadcaster! - Fin24
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.