Only tyrants jam signals

2015-02-22 15:00

Somebody, somewhere in government ordered cellphone signals to be blocked during the state of the nation address last week.

And while few people could have predicted that the state would stoop so low, this is the kind of behaviour that places South Africa in rather dubious company.

After all, communication restrictions in Indian-administered Kashmir – where India has long coupled its military might with a ban on internet and SMSes so frequently – have come to characterise the disputed territory.

Closer to home, President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently blocked cellphone services in Kinshasa. Further north, Nigeria blocks telecommunications services in Boko Haram territory.

Welcome to tyranny, South Africa. I don’t believe it’s a technical glitch.

The ANC government is not out of favour with the majority of South Africans, not by a long shot.

But it has shown an alarming tendency to thwart the expression of dissent, or at least a lack of decency, in accounting for the misuse of state funds.

For the ordinary South African, R246?million might seem like a lot of money, but compared with the arms deal of R30?billion or the R4.7?billion swindled by the construction cartel, Nkandla is always going to be a matter of principle.

If Zuma pays back the money tomorrow, we won’t solve poverty, save the economy or revive the ailing mines.

But it sure as hell will send the right signal of accountability, economic prudence and leadership – values our president knows little about.

Instead, not only has he refused to satisfactorily respond to the Public Protector’s report, but his loyalists have also protected him from censure.

And his behaviour is becoming similar to leaders who use whatever means necessary to protect their rule.

When Kabila muzzled cellphone services in Kinshasa last month, it was no different to what happened days before Zimbabwe’s election in 2013, when Robert Mugabe’s government blocked mass SMS services in the country.

At the time, it was suggested the move in Zimbabwe was necessary “in the interests of peace, national security and stability”.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the obstruction of signals has isolated entire populations.

When Goodluck Jonathan’s government announced a state of emergency in four states in northeast Nigeria in May 2013, among the first casualties of the war on Boko Haram was communications.

Nigeria’s move was an attempt to create a security net across the region as cellphones can act as a detonator of improvised electronic devices. But it was also a purposeful attempt to control information and own the narrative.

Millions of citizens were left at the mercy of Nigeria’s military or Boko Haram fighters.

While it is illegal in South Africa to jam mobile signals, the Independent Communications Authority of SA says it is not beyond the national security cluster to block a signal if there is a security threat or, as others might point out, for the heck of it.

But trying to understand the precise nature of what a security threat entails is a futile exercise.

When the DRC government blocked the signal, it did so to prevent images of a violent police crackdown on protesters from getting out and fuelling a larger anti-government rebellion.

Kabila is unpopular in Kinshasa and in many other parts of the country. His presidency is marked by voter irregularities, political violence and the muzzling of opposition leaders.

With all his faults, Zuma’s administration faces little of the same.

The ANC is still enjoying its glory years. In last year’s general elections, it won 62% of the vote. Its closest rivals were the DA with 22% and the EFF with 6%.

Unlike other incumbents, be it Mugabe, Zambia’s late president, Michael Sata, or Kabila, the ANC hasn’t had to descendresort to electoral trickery.

But the bigger question is: If Zuma’s presidency behaves with such oblique insecurity in a position of strength, what can we expect when voters grow more wary of the ANC?

Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and executive editor of The Daily Vox

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