Newsmaker – ‘What do they not want us to know?’

2011-09-24 21:15

Writing in the SA Communist Party journal Umsebenzi recently, secretary-general Blade Nzimande launches a scathing attack on civil society organisations which, he says, are part of a “(neo) liberal agenda” that wants to project government as being anti-constitutional, anti-rule of law, anti-media freedom, as well as being racist, sexist and corrupt.

The article, published in the first week of September, comes in the wake of growing opposition to the Protection of State Information Bill by various sectors of society, most notably the Right2Know campaign.

The organisation has been vocal against certain clauses in the bill that give the minister of state security wide-ranging powers to classify official documents, rendering them out of bounds from the public domain.

The bill, which proposes jail sentences of up to 25 years for failure to comply, has been described by media groups and civil society as draconian and reminiscent of apartheid-era statutes which suppressed media freedom and transparency.
 
“It’s the same thing that happened in Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe took a piece of legislation (the Public Order and Security Act) from Ian Smith’s era and applied it in a new democratic era,” says the Right2Know’s Dale McKinley (49).

“It’s about protecting state information, but the question is, what state information? That’s the issue,” he says, adding that giving the minister of state security such powers raises concern that this could shift state power into the hands of the security apparatus, like in the PW Botha era.

“The apartheid state wouldn’t have wanted people to know about death squads, sanctions, corruption, taking money and putting it into the military, now what does the ANC government not want people to know?”

Right2Know has been championing a fierce campaign against the proposed bill, organising marches to Parliament, issuing petitions and this week held a candlelight vigil at the Constitutional Court ahead of a scheduled parliamentary caucus debate on the bill.

However, in an interesting turn of events ahead of a scheduled parliamentary caucus debate, on Monday the ANC announced it was withdrawing the bill from the parliamentary programme for further consideration.

Earlier this month the parliamentary ad hoc committee dealing with the bill adopted certain clauses of the bill after a vote on each clause, and proposed amendments on some.

In Umsebenzi, Nzimande says that “this ‘civil society’ is a clearly well-resourced project, whose sources of funding are often obscure and kept secret, while demanding transparency from everybody else except themselves!”

McKinley points out that all the people working on the campaign are volunteers who don’t get paid for their efforts and that their activities have been funded by, among others, the Open Society Foundation and the Foundation for Human Rights.

McKinley is a former senior SACP member who, in 2000, was expelled after a row following his criticism of the organisation for elevating its senior members into government where they were expected to implement privatisation policies instead of focusing on the agenda of fighting for workers rights.

He has a PhD in international political economy and African studies and makes his living through research work and university lecturing.

He is not new to social movements, having ­co-founded the Anti-Privatisation Forum in the early 2000s. In the 1980s he worked in the underground structures of the ANC in exile in Zimbabwe and the US where he was a student.

When he came back to the country in 1990 he was deployed to work with self-defence units in Alexandra and worked full-time for the SACP.

He says he still maintains contact with his former comrades. Why, then, I ask, does he not take up the fight within the structures of the movement? Is he disillusioned?

“No, no, no ... I’m not disillusioned,” he says. “There are a lot of disgruntled people (within the ANC/SACP) who haven’t spoken up. Some have decided to keep quiet and work things out from within, which I respect,” he says.

“This is the problem. Most of the leaders within civil society were in the movement and were marginalised because they tried to speak out from within; they were labelled counter-revolutionaries,” McKinley says.

There seems to be a trend whereby civil society organisations like Right2Know are led by white South Africans which could create the impression that there is an element of bitterness and anti-ANC tendencies.

“I know that I should not be the face of this campaign because I’m not representative of the majority of the population of the country. In a year I should no longer be in the position,” he says.

He adds that while there are many black civil organisations in the previously disadvantaged areas, they tend to be disadvantaged by issues of funding and a lack of skilled volunteers.

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