Our divisions are showing

2011-11-16 00:00

FEW legislative processes provided as much evidence of the underlying ideological contests over the very soul of the new South Africa as the draft Protection of State Information Bill. It has been in abeyance for a few weeks, but has now been reintroduced in Parliament for further work after the ANC pulled out due to persisting concerns from various quarters.

If you are in doubt about the extent to which South Africa is divided along ideological, racial and other lines you are either in denial or you are a die-hard optimist. Too often now, the issues that get the country debating most are those that relate to competing ideas about this country’s history. This is true of the recent acrimony over nationalisation, Julius Malema and the angry youth, the appointment of the new chief justice, judiciary reform and many other issues.

In this acrimony, the government is projected as an evil force seeking to subvert the Constitution, roll back human rights gains of the post-1994 period and impose some form of typical African dictatorship. Anyone who opposes the government, from opposition parties through media to NGOs, is instantaneously hailed as a fearless freedom fighter and independent mind. All reforms that affect the privileges inherited from apartheid are demonised as suspicious, malicious or anti-reconciliation.

For its part, the government has often assumed that what it sees as wise, necessary and genuine is seen just as that by every­body else. At times, it has been too sensitive to criticism. At other times, it has not understood both the insecurities of the privileged minorities and their disproportionate power due to their control of capital, and their dominance of the media and public opinion. Then add to this poor preparation, technical errors and downright incompetence in certain cases.

The Information Bill was first brought forward to replace the Protection of Information Act, 1982, which was deemed outdated and inadequate to respond to today’s challenges in respect of government-held information. In light of the frequent leakages and growing espionage, the government felt the need to strengthen information security and protect national security.

There were two main objections from the very start. Firstly, the bill went too far and offered very limited leeway for freedom of information. Secondly, the bill was being introduced for the wrong reasons, mainly to protect corrupt government officials. The wide-ranging consultative process by the multiparty portfolio committee that effected a raft of negotiated amendments in about 200 drafts of the bill went a long way towards dealing with the first concern because this was about legal technicalities or content of the bill. However, it did nothing to resolve the second concern because this is in the realm of suspicions, mistrust and deep ideological differences.

It was no surprise that after all the bending backwards by the ANC in Parliament and exhaustive submissions by fine legal minds, information security, freedom of speech and other areas of concern, the bill could still not proceed. The decision by the ANC to start its own parallel process of consultation was perhaps because it realised that the underlying issue was politics rather than technicalities. But it was the wrong route, of course.

Now that the ANC has decided correctly to take it back to the parliamentary committee responsible, what should we expect? It is clear that the bill is a metaphor for deeper divisions in society, especially disagreements that are fundamentally ideological in nature. The critics of the bill are a varied group of interests, of course, but what joins them are liberal values of politics. This is about the primacy of individual rights, a small and lean state, emphasis on human rights and free press. South African liberalism is associated with white interest groups, but it involves more than them.

On the other hand, the ANC is made up broadly of social democrats who tend to believe in the balance between private and group rights, strong and developmental government, social ownership of means of production, free and legitimate press, equity, justice and human rights.

South Africa is not yet a single nation, partly because these deep cleavages have not been bridged. The bill simply provides a spark for deep-seated fault lines to surface. Therefore, the committee will do well to keep the dialogue open and not rush to clinch a deal as this might be an opportunity for catalytic dialogue towards national reconciliation. The current laws should be sufficient in the interim.

But we certainly need real reconciliation and nation-building in this country. Otherwise, the fault lines will tear us asunder in future.

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