Government can’t pull the wool over a vigilant citizen’s eyes

2011-11-26 12:10

On September 20, President Jacob Zuma signed the Open Government Partnership Declaration on behalf of the Republic of South Africa at a gathering of heads of state in Washington.

Member states claimed to “recognise that more people all around the world are demanding more openness in government. They are calling for greater civic participation in public affairs and seeking ways to make their governments more transparent, responsive, accountable and effective”.

Making remarks at the same gathering, President Zuma said: “Key to an open government and creating an open society is a free media. We pride ourselves on having freedom of expression and media freedom, which are enshrined in the Constitution . . . The South African government is therefore unambiguously committed to espousing the principles of open governance.”

Two months later, MPs voted overwhelmingly to pass the Protection of Information Bill without a public interest clause. While this should have been the last in a long list of lessons already learnt, it has regrettably proven to be the first for the media, civil society and ordinary South Africans.

Starting with the September episode where President Zuma made a lofty declaration on behalf of our republic, real proponents of open government should have known that governments say things they don’t mean.

The US sanctions extrajudicial killings of so-called militants in drone attacks, and those captured are sent to secret prisons to be subjected to torture, yet it organised the gathering.

Brazil, which has some of the most stringent secrecy laws, also signed up, along with the UK, another country that has a knack for sending its citizens overseas to be tortured.

So the first lesson is that politicians lie to project a common interest with the public when in reality they are pulling the wool over our eyes so that they can continue to abuse our trust.

The second lesson is for the media, which failed to show the obvious congruence between its work and the interests of the vulnerable on whom aspects of this bill will have the most profound impact.

Consequently, many citizens were not quite aware of why this issue caused such a furore.

Thirdly, our politicians, perhaps due to our electoral system, do not care what the rest of the population thinks. What counts is the happiness of their political principals. Ordinary citizens, the voters, get the middle finger unless there’s an election approaching.

Fourthly, South Africa remains racially divided. There were many who turned the debate into a black-versus-white issue, positing that the protests came from media organisations because they were owned by whites.

The poverty of this argument is exposed by the realisation that even when the ownership of media organisations changes, this law will still apply.

Proponents of this bill have argued that a public interest clause is unnecessary because it is appropriately provided for in other laws designed to protect whistle-blowers.

But they have failed to explain why they put up such a spirited fight for what is, if they are to be believed, a moot point.So what is to be done?

The answer is defiance and readiness to accept all the consequences that follow. Wherever they see corruption and behaviour inconsistent with our Constitution, journalists must continue to publish and choose to go to prison to protect their sources.

When that happens, those in power will have to make a choice between siding with citizens or the selfish interests of the few.

Despite the republic losing its innocence in a squalid arms deal, its citizens, including the media, have continued to naively believe that the guardians of their aspirations are the rulers.

This explains their laments in the past week. Maybe when we make significant sacrifices – like going to prison – people will understand that declarations like the one made in Washington mean nothing if citizens don’t remain vigilant.

» Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group

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