Towards an Orwellian State?

2011-12-14 02:48

Over the past few years, South Africans were confronted several times with a harsh reality - the intelligence services undermining the country’s hard-fought for democratic institutions. The communications of the judges of the highest court of the land – the Constitutional Court – were intercepted by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), whilst other intelligence agents sought to stop the prosecution of former National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi.

Political parties have also been spied on by the state security apparatus. The leader of the opposition United Democratic Movement (UDM), Bantu Holomisa raised questions as to why NIA was trying to undermine to political opposition during the local government elections in 2011. According to Holomisa, NIA agents approached a UDM candidate and offered him remuneration to serve as an agent for NIA within UDM structures.

Journalists exposing the corrupt leases practices within the South African Police Services, like the Sunday Times’ redoubtable Mzilikazi wa Africa had their communications eavesdropped by the country’s intelligence services. Indeed, there has been a steady increase in legal interception directions since 2006. Between 2009 and 2010 alone there was a 120 percent increase in the number of interceptions. No reasons have been given to explain this massive spike.

Whilst the intelligences services had inappropriately spied on the media and the judiciary, it was also taking place at a time when President Jacob Zuma, his cabinet ministers and party leaders labeled the media “the enemy of the people” and warned the Constitutional Court that they shouldn’t think that they were more important than the elected politicians. These attacks on the judges followed vitriolic attacks on the judiciary in 2008 in order to halt the prosecution of Zuma on fraud and corruption charges. In other words, the actions of the country’s spooks did not take place in a vacuum – it is taking place in a context where their political bosses are clearly labeling who the enemy is – invariably the very building blocks of a vibrant democracy – the judiciary and the media.

Given its growing list of failures in governing the country together with the institutionalization of corruption, the ruling ANC has grown ever more defensive. In a state where checks and balances are being systematically eroded, it is the journalist who is holding the executive to account. Indeed without the media much of the corrupt practices of our ruling elite would not have been exposed. In this context, the government has been trying to pass the highly controversial Protection of State Information Bill since 2008. By lacking a public interest clause, the Bill fails to provide protection to whistle blowers who pass on classified documents exposing corruption to the media. Indeed, even members of the ANC expressed disquiet about the Bill. One ANC parliamentarian stated, “We were expected to just endorse it. There were fears that the same bill can work against us in the future that state resources are being used by a political faction to investigate you, you will not be able to talk about that if such information is classified.

Eventually the Bill did pass the National Assembly with 229 votes to 107 and two abstentions. On the passing of the Bill, Professor Johann de Wet noted that it “…represents a backward step from the promise of democracy and having an informed public”. The incisive journalist, Max du Preez, was even more forthright, “The ANC’s steamrolling of the Protection of Information Bill through Parliament was without a doubt a crossing of a Rubicon; a firm step towards a more authoritarian state”.

It would seem that the foundations for a truly Orwellian state in South Africa have been well and truly laid.

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