Volume 1, Issue 12 (Originally Published 21 May 2016)
The post-Apartheid Constitution of South Africa, promulgated by then-President Nelson Mandela in 1996, is widely considered the most progressive in the world for its emphasis on human rights. It draws praise from the constitutional law teachers at Melbourne Law School as well as United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (as well as opprobrium for former US presidential candidate Rick Santorum).
Now, however, section 16 of the country’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, is under threat from the Protection of State Information Bill. This bill was passed in the National Assembly last November despite eighteen months of public protest against it by journalists and organisations of civil society. The protests against the Secrecy Bill, as it is known, will continue during this year. Civil society organizations, the media—and significantly, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—plan to jointly convene a summit meeting against it. COSATU’s director of alternative information and development said that the government’s response to “deepening poverty and inequality, faltering social cohesion”.
The Secrecy Bill specifies prison sentences for whistle- blowers who expose the rampant corruption by individuals in government, industry, and finance.
South African Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer has condemned the bill, which she said was taking the country back to the years of white minority rule. The advocate George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela during his apartheid treason trial in 1963, predicted that “if this bill is passed in its present form there will be a long queue of advocates to take the president and minister of state security to court. ...it will be a never-ending queue.”
Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called it "insulting" and warned it could be used to outlaw "whistle-blowing and investigative journalism".
So why does the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela - the liberator of South Africa from the repressive apartheid laws, want to undo the good work and human rights-orientation that have earned the world’s praise?
One possible reason is because of an arms deal probe. President Jacob Zuma recently established a commission of inquiry into the dealings of the controversial multi-billion dollar procurement in 1999 of fighter jets, submarines and other armaments to beef up the country's defences. One of his former associates was convicted for corruption in his role in the arms deal.
There is therefore a belief that the contentious bill will assist the state by allowing it to classify some of the information a secret, making it difficult to be disclosed publicly.
Nelson Mandela once said that press freedom would never suffer in South Africa "as long as the ANC is the majority party". Yet the capacity of power to corrupt now threatens South Africa’s much-admired constitutional freedoms, the very rights for which Mandela and countless others were ready to sacrifice their lives.