Censorship privatised

2013-10-10 00:00

BANNED books locked away in library cupboards, gazetted lists of banned people who could not be quoted, ferocious restrictions on the press, and what were reputed to be over 100 statutes that limited the flow of information.

These were just a few examples of the system of state censorship that disappeared with the fall of apartheid in the early nineties. Under our present Constitution, most of apartheid’s censorship methods are outlawed and, apart from a few hardy surviving laws, have disappeared into history’s dustbin. We are now a thriving democracy that guarantees freedom of information, association and expression.

Or, are we? There is a great deal of worrying evidence that these democratic rights are under considerable stress. Recent examples concern the art works of Ayanda Mabula and Brett Murray, and the film Of Good Report, suggesting that the target is now graphic expression rather than the written word. Does this mean that prose is now not seen as particularly significant?

Censorship is no longer overtly the business of the state, but has been privatised by the majority party, various institutions and individuals in a variety of ways. One of the most shocking, partly because it raises barely a ripple of interest, is the fact that some parts of the country are no-go areas for opposition parties.

In a democracy, politics is a contest over ideas and their practical application. In South Africa, in some cases it is a matter of territorial occupation. KwaZulu-Natal offers salutary examples.

Then there is the silencing of dissident voices. Whistle-blowing and the expression of contrary opinion is met not with reason, but intimidatory responses about defamation and accusations about bringing institutions “into disrepute”.

The balance of power on the terrain of public debate is heavily weighted in favour of the powerful, influential and prosperous. This is not surprising with a political culture increasingly leaning towards ethnic nationalism, traditionalism and patriarchy, and the ANC apparently destined to govern the country until the Second Coming.

Leader of Agang, Mamphela Ramphele, has noted the deficit of citizenship that results from an unwillingness to criticise what South Africans mistakenly persist in calling the “ruling party”. People are only too aware of the potential consequences for their businesses or prospects of promotion. Dikgeng Moseneke, who should be chief justice, is a case in point. This is, of course, why the survival of an independent press that stands up for individuals and groups in the face of the unreasonable or abusive use of power is so crucial, and why the government still punts the idea of a media tribunal.

The struggles of the past were not simply political, not just about winning every adult’s right to vote each five years in national, provincial and local elections. They were multidimensional. Look at today’s work places: the struggle for ordinary people was also about respect and rights in employment.

In the public sector, employees are gagged by their conditions of service and public utterances are restricted to spokespeople who can shut down the flow of information at will by silence, obfuscation or blatant delaying tactics.

How many times a week do we hear on the airwaves from a spin doctor that a judgment, however obvious in meaning, is “being studied”?

In the private sector people are fearful for their jobs. Even raising mundane issues, such as parking or toilets, is regarded all round as a surprising challenge.

Young people in particular, it seems, take it as given that unanswerable power rests with management. For all their glaring deficiencies, this is why trade unions are vital to the freedoms essential to democracy. They not only look after material issues, but provide the figurative muscle to promote a climate of mutual respect and the protection of civil rights.

Those who foresaw the implications of an ANC-dominated Westminster-style parliamentary dispensation and successfully promoted a constitutional democracy deserve our gratitude. But this has presented its own challenges.

The power of the courts to interpret the Constitution has led to a tendency towards legalism and a growing temptation to use legal channels to clamp down on the flow of information.

Even when the courts decide that this is unacceptable, judgments are ignored by politicians and public servants, in clear contempt of the rule of law.

We have moved from one culture of censorship to another. The heavy hand of apartheid officialdom has disappeared. But more obscure forms of control and resultant self-censorship flourish.

• letters@witness.co.za

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