Freedom and the Secrecy Bill: An Orwellian Nightmare?

2013-05-10 07:26

Will the passing of the Secrecy Bill usher us into a more Orwellian-like society? In Orwell’s haunting political allegory, Animal Farm, the animals form a ‘united democratic front’ to take over property from the exploitative human owner thus earning their freedom.Unfortunately this freedom, if any, lasted only momentarily.

The initial slogan that spread through the farm during that revolutionary period was: ‘All animals are equal!’ Hope was short-lived though and pretty soon the ruthless and clever creatures of the farm (the pigs) – eventually had all the animals socially engineered with the same disciplined compliance of mechanical entities – dutifully performing under their dictatorship. The pigs meanwhile began to live the lives of the aristocrats while the grinding majority was forced to earn a meager living. After a short period, the slogan was then artfully revised by the pig’s propaganda machine to read: “Some animals are more equal than others”

If we reflect on this story, even if somewhat loosely, we may awaken from our deep slumber and realise that our struggle for freedom was a grassroots victory fought by the mass movement of our people across the racial divide. So the credit for victory does not belong to one party or one race group, even though this is the prevailing myth that is being propagated by those in power, that are currently rewriting our history.

We may see some remarkable parallels between Napoleon and Snowball and what has become the most scandalous story in the history of the ruling party – the power struggle between President Zuma and ousted President Mbeki. I refer specifically to the incidents that resulted in the banishment of the leaders. In the case of President Mbeki, banishment may be too strong a term for some, but the act was present nonetheless, and let us not forget deceit was rampant. If we reflect on this story, we will see equally remarkable parallels between Boxer, the noble horse, as the embodiment of the average South African citizen, dutifully working hard to make this a better country for our children.

We may also see a disturbing alliance being formed between the exploitative farmers and the cunning farm creatures (so hauntingly described at the end of the book). I refer off course to the current relationship between big global defense and finance corporations, influential intelligence agencies, powerful nation states and not forgetting the new ruling class with their grotesque, self-proclaimed privileges. Yes, US President Eisenhower also warned us of the dangers of a military-industrial complex being shaped, protected, privileged, and backed by the state. So while some lawyers claim victory that the latest amendments to the Bill now exclude commercial information, the remaining vague clause such as: “the exposure of economic, scientific or technological secrets vital to the Republic”, should leave us feeling uneasy as this could mean anything and everything.

Yet, despite these stark similarities with Animal Farm and the politics of the day, it is Orwell’s other famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is perhaps more prophetic about current day politics in South Africa. Orwell spends a significant amount of time describing to us in microscopic detail about the work of the “Ministry of Truth’s” records office and how the Party employed people whose single most important duty was to maintain the ‘truth’ of the present by deleting the facts of the past. This is similar in many ways to the strategy the apartheid government and their ‘sponsored experts’ used to distort the truth.

I can recall one example that Nigel Speavey discusses elegantly in his book, How Art Made The World. In it, he describes the collusion by the apartheid state and their lackey experts to spread the notion that the Bushmen paintings done 20,000 years ago were actually the work of foreigners of ‘Nilotic-Mediterranean origin’. This was obviously a form of racism and motivated reasoning in the name of upholding the notorious apartheid system of government.

Yes, it is also similar to the manner in which the young Helen Zille’s contribution to South African history – one of the many heroes during our troubled times of apartheid for exposing the controversy surrounding the death of the forever cerebral Steve Biko – is absent from most of our minds today. It is a pity that we will never know, what intellectual giants such as Biko, Hani and Luthuli, would have to say about the ideals of reason, the pursuit of truth and the power structures in our government today.

I think that when we analyze the Secrecy Bill we need to reflect on it with the same analytical precision that these three great intellectuals may have adopted. I suspect that as much as we may wax lyrical about the threats to free speech, they would draw our attention to the dangers of the concentration and balance of power.

In the first phase of our democracy it seemed only fair for many of us to trust the leading political party. Admittedly they had to contend with a herculean task. All things considered, given their poor performance in the areas of defense, border management, intelligence, policing and the judiciary should we submit blind obedience to the same old catchphrase ‘National Security’. An astute observer will recognize that public officials all around the globe, whether in a democracy or a more oppressive state, believe that they have the right to rule without public involvement, and prefer to suppress and stifle information flow to the citizens they represent.

Heather Brooke discusses in The Silent State, how in 2009, even the self-appointed prototypical moral elites of the political world – British Parliamentarians in all their pomp and splendor – wanted to maintain the status quo of power imbalances between the state and citizens, despite their sophisticated and surely euphemistically labeled Freedom of Information Act. Many of the eminent Lordships were reluctant to open up secretive information to their citizenry, and more significantly, were reticent to reveal how they had spent public money. Eventually this ended in a major political scandal, followed by a number of resignations.

But why do we need this particular Bill so urgently in South Africa given the more pressing projects in the current portfolio of state priorities? Do we have any serious competition or military threat globally or in the region perhaps, somewhere here in Africa maybe, that we should be immediately concerned about? You would not have to be a brilliant prognosticator to wager that this is highly unlikely.

We have seen several examples where our security agencies have acted above the law and arrogantly displayed that they are accountable to no one but themselves. Instead of protecting our citizens they have demonstrated that they do not see the need to be accountable to the public when they wield their considerable power. Is this the caliber of people we want in charge of keeping us secure?

If we have a government elected by the people, for the people, then why should we be kept in the dark? If we enter into wars, then is it not the South African citizen who is footing the bill. Is it not in the name of the South African citizens that wars should be fought in the first place?

Anyway, what good is it that our intelligence agencies should have a monopoly on knowledge? Have we not seen recently what amounts at least partly to intelligence failures in the Central African Republic? Have leaders in our security services earned our trust having sometimes wielded power over citizens with the same monstrous display of authority and depraved cruelty that had our people gripped in fear and anger during colonialism and apartheid?

Could it be that the biggest threat of free information flow facing the ruling party is the informed citizen? Could it be that the real intention behind the Bill is to control and regulate information, because the free flow of information to citizens is a threat to the state’s evolving autocratic systems? Perhaps, our state bureaucrats and our national security agencies are really interested in securing their own positions of power? One has to ask why this would be their intention given our largely apathetic response towards the Arms Deal controversy which demonstrated by and large we are a fairly impotent citizenry.

Or could this Bill’s origin be due to something less sinister and perhaps even mundane as advice received from yet another group of expensive international consultants – an outcome of a comparative quantitative benchmarking assessment with one of the stars in global policy setting – the United States or the UK perhaps. Perhaps this all started with an accidental encounter with one of own research institutions keen to justify their existence by promoting paranoia, and let us not forget the use of jargon that will intimidate even the best Oxford graduate, let alone a bored bureaucrat looking for something meaningful to do instead of playing solitaire. Perhaps, it was another policy meme that infected one of our decision-makers like a highly contagious virus, in an innocent conversation, during one of those lavish international diplomatic parties.

We can even speculate that it is the digital age that is frightening to some of our politicians and security forces who would like to control our communication. After all, the Arab Spring has shown us how powerless citizens can come together to challenge political leaders and state institutions.

We should hope that these kinds of laws will not be applied eventually to the citizen’s use of mobile networks and the Internet. These citizen communication networks are starting to provide us with knowledge, irrespective of class, power, and wealth – and we should be most protective about it. As pointed out by Heather Brooke in her later works, these technologies are also providing us with the hope of being a truly informed public – a platform to share our thoughts, organize around issues, and to challenge those in charge who abuse power. If used appropriately it may be able to help us build a vibrant democracy. Yes, there exists a criminal minority – citizens, state officials and even journalists – who will abuse their freedoms.

I am sure many reasonable citizens would support that criminals – once what amounts to crimes have been narrowly and reasonably defined – should be prosecuted. However, we can only hope that there are no loopholes with this Bill (I refer to those parts still shrouded in cloudy vagueness) in its present form or future Bills that allows the state to ‘protect us’ by ‘suppressing us’ from using these citizen communication networks to form our opinions.

Are we not entitled to the following guarantees at least: that future decisions made as a result of this Bill will not erode what little liberties we have (from a dompass we may now need an e-tag to venture in what were once public travel routes to our workplace); that crimes against citizens will not be committed in the name of national security (protecting our so-called economic security by really protecting the interest of global mining corporations even though some of them abandoned us after the initial, ceremonial demise of apartheid); that we will not be helpless in challenging the state for suspected wasteful expenditure when they claim that the information we need is subject to secrecy (for example, the Arms Deal and Nkandla).

We should hope that citizen communication networks will be used to foster democracy and enlightenment to the same extent that the invention of the Printing Press had brought about in Europe. We should also hope that this medium does not become just another form of consumer escapism, or become subjected to a type of totalitarianism that will restrict and manipulate the truth. But are we using these technologies to redefine the future of our democracy in any momentous way? Initial research by some of my colleagues on Internet and mobile phone use patterns suggest that these technologies are strengthening and advancing narrow group interests as opposed to increasing individual autonomy. If these patterns persist, they may weaken our shared experiences of citizenship and dash our hopes of being a truly informed public and a thriving democracy.

One of the founders of the US constitution, Thomas Jefferson, argued that the state should trust its citizens to form their own opinions. To do this we will need access to the facts and be able to communicate our opinions freely. This is the only hope for the enlightenment of many of our people, and the end of a divisive society where the majority group are steeped in superstition and the blind worship of their leaders, and where some minority groups are still struggling to transcend their reassuring but false, elitist notions of superior racial, religious or intellectual distinctiveness. We need to at least sometimes leave the illusory comfort of our particular social groups and act in solidarity to defend the broader interests of our infant democracy. We can no longer afford to be passive participants in the institutional building of our country.

If you reflect on the prophecy of Orwell’s novels, can the future landscape of South Africa be anymore gloomy than it was in the past or is presently? Irrespective of our race, class or intellectual ability, we will have to acknowledge that we have been a divided nation that have in the main always sheepishly drunk from the fountains of those who were in power, people whose minds have always been ridden with the authority of narrow group interests, with stagnant beliefs that have hindered us from thinking independently, or truly cooperating with each other. Irrespective of the historical period, many of us have clung too closely to our social groups and chose to naively believe in our party’s slogan at one time or the other that was always the same old lyric: “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (quote from Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Are we on the verge of sacrificing our personal freedom for the false promise of greater security or are we simply a divided nation that prefers to recoil from the responsibility of our new found freedom? Is it is a stretch to also apply the insights of the Great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and assert that we are historically a nation of divided groups that prefer bread and miracles to freedom? This reflection may be a blow to our crystallized individual and collective ego but by many accounts seems profoundly and ominously true. Surely, it is not enough to be well fed and entertained! It is also not enough to be a spectator and applaud from a distance those few legal experts and NGOs that had the guts to contest the initial versions of the Bill. Still more needs to be done and many more of us need to stand up and be counted so that the final Bill limits the power of the state in a few key areas. Ultimately we need to ensure that the state uses its power according to transparent and unambiguous rules that serve the interests of the larger population. If we do not, then we are largely to blame.

We know that power can corrupt even once benevolent leaders who started out their mission to serve with good intentions. We know that the current safeguards in place to deter detect and punish transgressions by the state, if any, are extremely weak. We also know about the frailties of human nature in taking shortcuts to fame and fortune. We know all too well about the human tendency to favor family and friends and afford them privileges in the absence of a system of checks and balances.

As political scholar Francis Fukuyama points out, we will be naïve to expect a ruling party with such a strong concentration of power to simply comply with the law of the land and to be held accountable in parliament and by other oversight bodies to meet the broader interests of the citizen. He reminds us that good institutions will not appear magically. If we are to build a thriving democracy we have to realize that it takes more than just voting in elections. We can limit the power of the state by a system of checks and balances through the will of the people and this expression in the form of an even more active and vigorous civil society.

This is the only way to set our new Masters free from the trappings of absolute power. We have to be more active participants in the political life of our emerging democracy so that we keep them in check from the perils of power. Otherwise we may end up like the betrayed animals in Animal Farm, a betrayed people who remained trapped in empty slogans: AMANDLA! AWETHU! POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

Or is it in truth POWER TO THE (Elite) PEOPLE (of the Ruling Class)?

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