Secrecy, spies and lies

2011-11-25 00:00

I LAST took to the streets in late 1989. On November 22, 2011, I was back, at the Right2Know Durban City Hall picket against the Protection of Information Act (POIA). Like the bad old days this contemporary experience was both exhilarating and depressing. For the first time in 20 years I bumped into my old UDF and MDM comrades, all now in their 60s. We thought of establishing an old activists’ club.

The motley crowd brandishing banners was animated. Journalists were interviewing folks, and speakers using a loud-hailer were talking both sense and in clichés. Police observed from the city hall’s steps.

This got me to thinking about between now and then. Then was when integrity was exemplary, democracy the objective, and alternative media the fulcrum of mobilisation. Then was when the corporate media was also enemy, resisted along with apartheid. Then, was when capital was the demon.

Now, it is the corporate media that is (largely) exemplary, when alternative media is almost gone, and when burning activism has reappeared everywhere. Capital is now king for those who previously fought it. Censorship has returned. Why? Enemies, spies and lies are everywhere, the government tells us. The apartheid state was much more effective in constructing its enemies: communists/terrorists. Now, the spies identified by the minister are a bit like the old communists — viral, invisible, pervasive and insidious. They are everywhere and nowhere that’s why the legislation is necessary. Just like the bad old days. One does not know whether one is a communist (or spy) until one is identified by a plutocrat who knows one when he or she sees one.

My own centre, which housed many anti-apartheid media organisations, drove resistance to apartheid on the one hand and engaged in policy formation on the other. Indeed, some of this policy was taken seriously by the same government that is now dismantling it.

We worked with an alliance, the Natal Technikon journalism department, a wonderful cauldron of anarchists, educators and activists. We linked with critical journalists and together took on the corporate editors, who absorbed our blows on the chin but invited us to their conferences anyway.

State officials tell me that the current bills in no way can be compared to apartheid legislation, as the ANC government was democratically elected. That may be, but a democratic election does not necessarily translate into democracy in practice. The actual practice protects political and civil institutions, minorities, and the integrity of information. In short, democracy is the most efficient way of limiting corruption. Keeping one’s hands out of the cookie jar was how one Right2Know co-ordinator put it. The media have a watchdog role in this. If they don’t bark, who will? What will then prevent those in power from abusing it? Otherwise we’re back to the eighties when media could criticise the government, but could land in jail if they provided hard evidence to back up their arguments.

I was too young to understand what the Extension of University Act (1959) meant when it was proposed. This kind of naming reverses the truth. Same now. To demonise the current act’s opponents as wanting to protect P. W. Botha’s legislation makes the reverse logic that Alice had to negotiate seem utterly predictable. The new act contains many of the provisions of the old act (some good, some bad). So now we have the old bad and new bad in one piece of legislation.

What struck me about the picket was how it had, like the UDF, attracted all sorts: lawyers, professors, students, activists, unionists, and a few down-and-outs. An ice-cream vendor did a roaring trade. This was a trans-class, cross-racial, multi-ethnic, diverse religious grouping of very concerned citizens from different generations, all of whom know that history is repeating itself. No one wanted to revisit P. W. Botha’s days, although the rhetoric was often a confusion of ANC-speak and other discourses, reflecting perhaps popular bewilderment at current ANC behaviour.

• Professor Tomaselli is director of The Centre for Communication, Media and Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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