Justice betrayed

2011-12-03 10:20

A day after the National Assembly passed the Protection of State Information Bill, with the ANC members voting overwhelmingly for the legislation, I found myself in Mazimbu, Tanzania, where many ANC cadres spent time fighting for a free and open society.

The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco), named after one of South Africa’s most committed freedom fighters who was hanged after being captured in Johannesburg, is a sprawling complex of administration blocks, tutorial classes and dormitories.

It was built by the ANC after the Tanzanian government, under the late Mwalimu Kambarage Nyerere, gave the movement land. Money for the project came from the Nordic nations, but ANC cadres built Somafco from scratch, including its furniture.

Today, after then ANC president Oliver Tambo handed the place back to the Tanzanian government in 1992, Somafco is a university where Tanzanians learn, using the same furniture made by the ANC cadres.

I was in Tanzania as part of a research mission of the Press Freedom Commission (PFC), looking into the Tanzanian model of media self-regulation.

We met with a number of civil society structures and at the end of our elaborate questions, without exception the questions would be posed: “Now what are you guys doing in South Africa with this secrecy bill? What are you doing to us? Which African example are we going to use as a model when we fight our own battles here?

Should we now quote Europe and the West as examples of open societies? Do you guys understand what you are doing to all of us as Africans by going backwards?”

PFC commissioners, Dr Phil Mtimkulu of Unisa’s politics department and former trade unionist Derick Elbrecht, and myself, tried to explain as best we could, but it was clear that at least those Tanzanians we met saw the passing of the bill as a retrogressive step in opening African societies and allowing media as free a space as possible within which to operate.

Tanzania is very similar to South Africa. It is governed by a liberation party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), originally known as Tanu. It has majority representation in Parliament.

CCM’s position is as unassailable as that of the ANC. Party leaders are constantly being exposed in non-state media as corrupt, and with President Jakaya Kikwete in his last term, the jockeying for his replacement in 2015 has already started.

It is their own Mangaung. They are as touchy as the ANC about exposés of corruption or news of failure by government. The main opposition party, Chadema, is growing, and to date has 48 seats in a 320-seat Parliament.

Poverty is high, lack of infrastructure is cramping Tanzania by the day and imports of second-hand Japanese cars have clogged up the capital’s roads to a permanent gridlock during the day.

Used to having only state or party cheerleader media in the past, Kikwete’s government has been dragging its feet for more than five years over the passing of bills designed to remove the power of registering media and even banning them from the minister of information. In fact, to complete the similarities, the existence of the independent Media Council of Tanzania since 1995, was as a result of an attempt by the government to impose a statutory regulatory tribunal system.

So as Tanzanians fight these battles, they used to take solace from South Africa.

And now the Protection of State Information Bill and the absence of the clause that would protect those who expose wrongful conduct done under the cover of classification. For them that it was the ANC that was doing this was disappointing.

And so, when the meetings ended, the three of us, with the help of SA High Commission staff Lucy Ramasodi and Colonel Dan Mthimunye, headed for Mazimbu, which is about five hours drive from the capital Dar es Salaam, depending on how daring your driver is on the truck-choked narrow road.

From the Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere Freedom Bridge as you cross into Somafco, entry is controlled. A mural with Mahlangu’s face adorns the walls at the entrance. On the left is the hospital and on the right a number of buildings, including an old wreck of a bus that the ANC used to transport cadres around.

Maybe one day someone will organise for it to be brought to Freedom Park in Tshwane as part of the heritage of the freedom that was not free. There is a hive of activity as the campus is gearing for graduation the following day.

We walked around, through the Double Up Street, taking its name from the township slang of crossing through someone’s place, through Yusuf Dadoo and Lilian Ngoyi avenues.

The whole place is impressive and the imagination wanders to what could have been happening there 30 years ago in 1981 on a kind of Thursday like that day.

In the Walter Sisulu boardroom, pride of place on the notice board is held by a story written by political reporter Sabelo Ndlangisa in City Press in 2008. This was following his visit, organised through Transnet, to the college with a group of South Africans.

We then went to the cemetery, where many freedom fighters lie buried. The area is well-kept, with someone tending to it. A stone wall surrounds the graveyard, and at the entrance is a plaque that pays tribute to “Comrade Johannes Phaula of Ixopo District, Natal, South Africa, for his tireless contribution in maintaining our graveyard at the Chapel for Services”.

To the right of the entrance is the cenotaph, where we placed flowers and branches harvested from the abundant fauna around. And on it are the words: “Ours was not for personal glory nor distinction but for a noble cause of our time – the liberation of the people of South Africa and the entire humanity.”

As we walked around the graves, emotions mount. These were our fellow countrymen and women and children, who left the comfort of home to fight for an ideal of a free and open society. For the noble cause, as the words on the cenotaph state, and they died so far away.

We discussed what it must have been like in 1982. We imagined one of those funerals, of someone who left home in the 60s and had now died, maybe of malaria, which was the main killer. His comrades carrying his coffin down from the dorms to the chapel. The songs of pain and hope, the songs of commitment and belief in good triumphing over the evil of apartheid and colonialism.

We sat on the stone benches in the chapel and could almost hear the songs of Hamba Kahle Mkhonto (Farewell Comrade).

The irony that the survivors may no longer be able to sing the full liberation song in a free South Africa without answering to some right-wing AfriForum, is too stark to ignore. And in that state of mind, fast-forwarding in time to the day and time, and to Julius Malema, tenders and position mongering. And the reality that some of the MPs who would have voted for secrecy to be enshrined to cover these kinds of activities would most probably have passed through Mazimbu and Somafco themselves.

The reality of the shift of ideals from the total commitment to justice, to now enacting mechanisms to hide possible corruption was just too much.

It felt like the betrayal of those that lay there. And in a sense brought into sharp focus the message of the Tanzanians:

“What are you guys doing to all of us Africans?”

» Mathatha Tsedu is project director at the Press Freedom Commission

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