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Is South Africa Putting a Gag on Its People?

That's what an ANC-backed national-security bill would do, says writer Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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The government argues that this law is intended not to cover up corruption but to "safeguard national security," as government minister Trevor Manuel told CNN, adding, "There isn't a single country in the world that doesn't protect secrets."

A different take on it comes from Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. He argues that the protests are largely from the middle classes, as opposed to the country's black majority, who are poor. "President Zuma," he recently wrote in Business Day, "has staffed the security cluster with trusted allies and this is why their desire to operate in the dark carries so much weight."

But Friedman says that the protesters have largely missed the mark. He argues that vital debate should focus on "how legitimate it is to allow intelligence agencies to keep secrets from us," and insists that it is important to understand that the debate must go beyond the media and the middle class, adding, "if ... we understand that the chief victims of unrestrained official power remain poor and that poor people must play a key role in protecting all our freedoms, we may ensure that we not only hold onto the freedoms we have but ensure that more and more of us enjoy them."

The bill will now go to the other house in Parliament -- the National Council of Provinces -- which will take it to the people in the country's 11 provinces. But with the ANC dominating all but one of those provinces, it is unlikely that the bill will be changed before the NCOP reports back sometime next year. The bill will then go to the president for what looks like an inevitable signing.

Meanwhile, opponents have argued that before he signs it, President Zuma should send the bill to the country's highest authority on matters constitutional -- appropriately named the Constitutional Court -- for a judgment on its legality. And while that's a ways down the road, there are indications that the opposition is preparing for the long haul.

On Friday the National Press Club called for another "Black Tuesday" protest (so named because the bill was passed last Tuesday without public consultation) this coming week. Protesters have been asked to wear black.

In still another irony of the moment, the name "Black Tuesday" was borrowed from Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when the apartheid regime banned the crusading newspaper the World and detained its black editor, Percy Qoboza, and its editorial staff.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based writer and journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.

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