The Great Info Bill Bunfight

2012-02-17 00:00

IN 1976 it was the young students who took to the streets to defy the apartheid government, yesterday it was the KwaZulu-Natal students who came out in force to protest against the Protection of State Information Bill. But they received stinging criticism from their elders.

In the packed hall with a capacity crowd of 500 people at the Umlazi Cinema Hall yesterday, some had come to give their views on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill and others had come to cheer or jeer their favourite “team”.

This was clearly a two horse race – the “pro’s” (those who believe the proposed legislation will serve the interests of society) and the “anti’s” (those who believe the legislation as it stands will be detrimental to human rights and be a step back to apartheid days).

The young audience seemed to be mostly in the anti-camp but there was also a loud contingent of “pro” people in the audience, many of them wearing yellow ANC T-shirts in various stages of wear and tear — freebies from the last local elections.

The R2K (Right to Know) campaign consisting of various civil society groups managed to rally substantial numbers to voice their protests against the bill. Many of them wore T-shirts with slogans saying: “Stop the Secrecy Bill, let the truth be told!” A hot and sweaty band of DA members outside held up posters asking drivers to hoot for media freedom — it was strangely quiet as taxi drivers eyeballed them and drove past.

The chairperson of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) ad hoc committee, Johannes Tau, at times had to shout for order above the spirited shouts. “No, no, no,” he said, “Do not say boo, it is not good manners to say boo to someone who is speaking because it will be your turn to speak and then it will be you getting the boo!”

As the speakers jostled for places behind the microphone, the chairperson had to reprimand them like naughty teenagers asking them to wait their turn. “Hey stop this — I’m googling you!” he said pointing at them sternly. Some, it seemed, were moved by the past … they had come with an impassioned plea to ask the committee to prevent the “bad old days of apartheid” from returning to terrorise the people.

Others came to state simply that they believed the secrecy bill was a good thing because it would protect South Africans from hoards of Africans north of the border who were hungry to come and rob us of our land. These not-so-subtle hints of xenophobia were echoed a few times throughout the day.

Samson Kale of R2K said he had suffered under apartheid and did not wish to see a return to those dark days. “I was jailed and I was arrested. I lost years of my life in order to fight for a new and democratic country. I was persecuted under apartheid for the possession of information that they believed would harm the state. This bill has the same intention to punish those who have information that could harm the state.”

Some took the opportunity to grab the microphone and lecture a captive audience. Moses Mkhize proposed that half of the members of the audience did not know their fathers, or how they had been born. A nervous titter rippled around the room.

“There are some questions you should not ask your parents,” he boomed warming to his theme. “You cannot ask your mother how you were made or she will tell you that you were an accident!” Clearly confused, the audience began to laugh.

“You cannot know how your parents were married either, these things are a secret,” he said. He summed up his argument that the government had the right to keep secrets from its citizens, like parents keep secrets from their children. He finished his speech with the heartfelt words: “We are not a banana republic!”

The DA released a statement yesterday claiming that the ANC had mislead its members into believing that the bill would protect them from identity theft and would protect private information like marriage and birth details.

DUT (Durban University of Technology) student Samkele Maseko accused the government of trying to muzzle the media and to stifle information on corruption. He said: “The government is supposed to be working for us, but they are trying to mislead us. We want answers to all the riddles that are happening, we don’t need this legislation … where are the Scorpions and why have the Hawks been put under the police. The police are also corrupt. We need legislation against fatcats. The problem with this country is that there is no leadership!”

He received a rousing applause.

Vusi Musi Duma argued that the right of access to information was not a fundamental right as guaranteed by the Constitution and he believed that the state had the right to make decisions on behalf of its citizens. Gogo Beata said that the youths who were making a noise were too easily misled and they did not know what they were talking about.

She urged them to trust the government. And here lies the rub!

This was not about a clumsy piece of legislation — it was a metaphor for the state of politics. A clash between culture and ideology. A clash of the generations.

While members of the audience argued about various clauses and sub-sections of the proposed bill, it was clear that most did not even know what it was all about.

Is the bill about the freedom of the media? Is it about the right to blow the whistle on corruption? Is it about the state’s right to hide sensitive information which could be detrimental to state security … actually it is about all of these things.

Since the first draft in 2010, it has been amended, but still people believe it could be flawed in its existing form. This complex bill and the state’s determination to push it through Parliament has opened a can of worms.

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