A nation addicted to hyperbole

2011-11-29 00:00

SOME events, however irritating, do serve the useful purpose of revealing some very interesting characteristics of a nation. One of these events is the introduction and passing of the Protection of State Information Bill by Parliament.

Since its introduction certain sectors of our population have been on a campaign to discredit it and get it cancelled altogether. At the height of this campaign, the ANC government agreed to extend the period of consultation to enable those who had reservations about the bill to table it.

At the end of this exercise, politicians of different political parties expressed satisfaction with the bill, and congratulated the ANC for its decision to consult more widely and to revise the bill where it was felt that it infringed on the freedoms of society. Then, the explosion came.

Marches to Parliament.

Inside Parliament the opposition MPs spoke with one voice, denouncing the bill. Mondli Makhanya (chairperson of Sanef) called November 22 a “sad and tragic day”.

It is said the bill will muzzle whistle-blowers and be used to conceal government corruption and incompetence. Lindiwe Mazibuko­, the newly crowned DA parliamentary leader, said: “This bill will unstitch the very fabric of our Constitution. It will criminalise the freedoms that so many of our people fought for.”

And some people from what is known as the Pro Arte Alphen Park School had this to say: “Imagine our children growing up in a society where they cannot produce beautiful drawings or write beautiful stories because the government forbids it.”

So this bill, in short, will destroy the Constitution, criminalise freedoms, destroy democracy and prevent children from drawing beautiful pictures. The biggest worry­ of course is that it will enable the government to prevent people from exposing corruption. The assumption here is that the ANC government is corrupt (not individual officials) and is hellbent on concealing the incidence of corruption within its ranks. These are the same people who have been applauding Thuli Madonsela, the public protector, for exposing the shady doings at the Department of Public Works and the police in respect of leases of buildings owned by Roux Shabangu.

Why did the president act on the public protector’s recommendation if the government intention is to conceal corruption? There are the Hawks, the Serious Crimes Investigative Unit, the South African Receiver of Revenue and the auditor-general which scrutinise and expose crime and corruption (government institutions), yet the government is said to be bent on concealing corruption.

How do you destroy democracy? To do that, the ANC government would have to ban all political parties, dissolve Parliament and exercise direct control over the judiciary. All news media (newspapers and TV) would have to come under state control and it would have to ban all forms of protest and rule by martial law. Is this what the ANC government is planning to do with this bill? No. What we see in this episode is the South African­ nation’s addiction to hyperbole­ and exaggeration.

Steven Friedman, who says he does not support the Information Bill, says: “Contrary to widespread belief, this bill is not aimed at closing down media coverage of government corruption and incompetence. If it was, it would not say information cannot be classified if it reveals wrongdoing or ineptitude in government” (Friedman, Business Day, November 22, 2011, page 13).

He goes on to say: “We are told repeatedly that this law will close down investigative journalism and prevent the media from reporting on government wrongdoing. Journalists are presumably entitled to take the law at its word and to continue reporting all those government failures the law says they can reveal. If they are prosecuted, they will hire lawyers who will point out that they are protected by the law. As long as our courts remain competent and independent, no journalist reporting on government misbehaviour can be convicted.”

We have quoted Friedman deliberately because he does not support the bill. His objection is that “government defenders of the bill from State Security Minister [Siyabonga] Cwele down, harp on about our vulnerability to foreign spies — without saying who our enemies are and why we would be threatened if foreigners knew what our security agencies do”.

Friedman expects a minister of state security­ to address the nation and tell it who our enemies are and why we would be threatened if foreigners knew what our security­ agencies do. If Cwele did that, President Jacob Zuma would know from that date that he had appointed a buffoon to one of the most critical positions in his cabinet. He would have to fire the fellow. Security chiefs do not do that, anywhere in the world.

The reason people like Cwele are called spooks is because their activities are clouded in secrecy. That is the name of the game, anywhere in the world, even in the so-called democracies like Britain and the United States. In the U.S., the CIA conducts covert operations and provides intelligence analysis for the incumbent president. In the United Kingdom, MI5, with a staff of 2 000, provides Britain’s internal counter-espionage service.

A government that is not influenced by its intelligence personnel cannot know what the world it operates in looks like. It should be noted also that Cwele said nothing about restricting investigative journalists who want to discover who is up to corruption in the government. He talked about foreign spies and the fact that they do build spy networks inside a country, using local people. His remarks cannot be dismissed as paranoia­ if even in the so-called democratic countries the MI5s of this world “specialise in monitoring all designated subversives in the country and conducts surveillance on a large number of foreign diplomats and embassies”.

Among those who are opposed to the bill several groups can be identified — those who have a direct interest in ensuring that the laws we have in place in this country are not powerful enough to prevent or punish espionage activity. They serve foreign interests under the cloak of being proudly South African­. I know, of course, that there are those who will find this idea shocking and unacceptable, the political humpty-dumpties. They believe South Africa is populated by staunch patriots who would never dream of doing such a dishonest thing.

There is also a group that is politically hostile to anything the ANC proposes and invites comment on. This bill is just one of those things. There are those who genuinely believe that the ANC government cannot be trusted, especially under Zuma, for what- ever reason.

South Africa suffers acutely from being without a national vision. Our interests are so diverse. Political, economical, social, cultural and ideological interests make us one of the most divided societies in the world. When our rugby team plays against a foreign team, we are urged to support the bokke. When the bokke go onto the field, they are all white, yet it is claimed that they have the support of the whole nation­. It is the same with the Proteas, and the whites want it to stay like that. I say the whites want it to stay this way because they are the ones who control these areas of South African sport.

If we cannot even play sport together, why should we think we can do anything else together? Some dreamers among us, of course, call us a “rainbow nation”. South Africans­ are very much like Americans, they believe the best things about themselves, even when they are aware of the worst things in their national character.

South Africans are going to oppose each other on many things for a long time to come, while other nations craft a common vision and unite. The reason for this vehement opposition to the Information Bill is, at its core, a reflection of the extent to which this nation is divided. South Africans are determined to be divided about almost everything. It is the us and them problem that characterises our national life, and we are determined to keep it that way.


• Thula Bopela is an ANC veteran and former member of uMkhonto we Sizwe.

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