Two notions of freedom

2010-09-01 00:00

THE Government’s Protection of Information Bill and Media Appeals Tribunal have been exhaustively debated over the past weeks and will certainly go down in South African political history as one of the most ham-handed efforts at control and centralisation. Little analysis has, however, been done on the underlying reasons, the hidden motivation for such a drastic step.

What we have read is that the government wants “unfettered power”, that it wants to “keep things hidden” and that it is suffering from “historical amnesia” since the apartheid government did exactly the same thing in 1982.

It has been suggested that the bill is part of a plan for the ANC to rule “until Jesus comes”. Yet another suggestion is that the media have not been forgiven for disclosing the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s personal life.

The political author Jonny Steinberg points out that the current extensive welfare grants connect the ANC to the poor. But because these grants come from non-ANC taxpayers, a delicate balance is being maintained. This balance could be upset by the media and is, in fact, being threatened by the exposure of greedy politicians. There must surely be more than meets the eye behind the current information scandal, but no one seems to know exactly what it is.

My theory is that what is behind the current push for media control is a juxtaposition of our understandings of democracy.

Since Polokwane, two ideological streams have come to the fore. The one stream is traditional democracy — now on the ascendant — the other, universal democracy.

What we saw at Codesa was pure unadulterated universal democracy. The negotiators — unelected incidentally — were on a high. They sought their inspiration in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in the post-war German federal constitution with its built-in safeguards and in other Western instruments such as the Canadian experience. To the returning exiles accustomed to liberal democracy, this was the right route. To the idealists, this was definitely the right route. To the ANC denialists — well, they would get 70% electoral support and could then change the Constitution.

In other words, pretending to be First Worlders was a stepping stone to power. If the “useful idiots” could not see this then they didn’t deserve to be part of the post-apartheid reality. The second stream are the universalists. Their concepts of democracy, justice and freedom of expression go back to the Greek and Roman civilizations. Nowadays, they seek succour in Western law and constitutional traditions. If we look to the Middle East, we find a theocratic form of democracy which differs from our two streams. And in China we find a disciplined form of democracy which again differs. Looking at our two forms — traditional and universal — we have to ask ourselves, after 15 years of cohabitation, whether they are compatible, and if so, how?

In this respect, the 1994 elections have been completely misunderstood by South African commentators. They seem to be under the impression that the outside world admires the Rainbow Nation because of the peaceful handover of power. In fact, the real underlying reason is that they are amazed that these two great civilizations, represented by traditional democracy and universal democracy, could negotiate a modus vivendi. And this at a time when coexistence in similar situations in Palestine, Rwanda and Sri Lanka had become so elusive. The test, of course, is whether the Codesa outcome, which embodied the bottom lines of these two streams, will hold.

But Codesa was a meeting of elites. The community of traditional democrats were not there in any meaningful way. Traditional leaders were given some subsidiary advisory powers, but nothing of import. They were kept on board, period. Western liberal values are actually anathema to many traditional democrats. If you had borne the yoke of colonialism and the indignity of apartheid, you too would want to flush out the arrogance of the white person. In Polokwane, the pawpaw hit the fan and brought a happy-go-lucky period to an end. Since Polokwane, our institutions and policies are being bent towards traditional democracy. And a new syllogism appears — the people want freedom. The ANC brought the people freedom. Therefore the ANC is the people.

Traditional democracy does not tolerate political leaders being criticised and that is why in 48 of Africa’s 53 states it is a criminal offence to criticise publicly the country’s president. There is great respect for leaders and elders, and that is why, according to Robert Calderisi, in his book The Trouble With Africa, leaders “behave like the African chiefs of old”. Little wonder that the media are now seen “as part of a plot to discredit the premier’s name”. Or that they are seen as “insulting the ANC”.

The traditional stream is an all-embracing one. Their democratic model integrates sport, culture, religion, commerce, justice and the media. The current Protection of Information Bill cannot, therefore, stand on its own.

That is why the ANC says it is “our historical duty to democratise every aspect of society” and that the media “does not represent the population”. That is why state, party and government are being conflated.

The all-embracing traditionalists tend to intrude culture and traditions into the political world — unlike the universalists who compartmentalise life’s activities. This means that power is centralised, that consumption and redistribution take precedence over investment and production, that client-patron relationships develop at the expense of equal opportunity and meritocracy, and that individualism is jettisoned in favour of the group.

Human rights also become part of the mix — rights for the universalists and obligations for the traditionalists. Writing in the Africa Security Review of 2002, Robert Eno points out that Europe has a culture of individual liberty dating back to the Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1793, while Africa is “still grappling with the concept”.

Within the ANC there is a hard core of traditional democrats —  probably 25% of the population. There are many universalists in the ANC who have come out against the bill — Ronnie Kasrils and Pallo Jordan. Others such as Siphiwe Nyanda and Jackson Mthembu support the bill. Many have a foot in both streams. This is not surprising, given the ANC pride’s in being a broad church. But while the church is compatible with a liberation movement, it befits not an open democracy — hence the gradual break-up of the ANC which we are now seeing. In its place should arise two great political parties, representing the two streams of civilisation. The outcome of the media imbroglio will tell us where we are headed.

• Dr Sandy Shaw is a freelance writer living in Vermont and author of South Africa’s Transition to Democracy: An African Success Story (2001).

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