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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Protests against a South African bill (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a cruel irony that many who fought against South Africa's white-minority regime and its harsh apartheid laws are now accusing the black-led African National Congress government -- many of whom also fought the same battle -- of instituting a law that is a throwback to those oppressive days. And what falls into the same category of irony is that the bill was created to get rid of a restrictive apartheid-era law.

The spark that provoked this potentially historic moment is the bill that the ANC-dominated Parliament passed last week 229-107, with two abstentions. It is officially known as the Protection of State Information Bill (pdf), which the government argues is necessary because existing law is not enough to protect the state against foreign spies. No explanation given regarding who those spies may be.

But while the bill may be aimed at foreign spies, at least 88 editors of South African newspapers signed a petition last week protesting the bill. They and others see the bill putting a lid on any information the state deems to be a threat to national security -- constituting, in essence, a gag on the media. Critics say it is a threat to democracy.

And that is the twist of fate that has caused many of the country's liberation-struggle heroes -- two of whom, Desmond Tutu and Nadine Gordimer, are Nobel laureates -- as well as the foundation of fellow laureate Nelson Mandela, to join hundreds protesting the bill. The fact that the bill doesn't contain a public-interest-defense measure requiring that the public's right to know be weighed against the state's need to maintain security has spurred the Right 2 Know Campaign against it. More than 400 civil-society organizations and at least 16,000 individuals have endorsed the campaign.

Indeed, it looks as if this still-young democracy has arrived at another muddy crossroads as it finds its footing in the democratic space.

What is also fueling the protest is that the bill provides for a prison sentence of up to 25 years for anyone who reveals what the government deems it necessary to keep secret in order to safeguard the country's national security. Such a sanction would also apply to anyone who might be in possession of such material received from another party and did not turn it over immediately to the police or state security. Imagine what could happen to whistle-blowers in cases involving wrongdoing by the government or its officials.

In addition, critics are upset that a government promise of widespread consultations with the public never materialized.

The hue and cry has been far and wide, local and global, with headlines in South African papers like the one in the Star, proclaiming, "Parliament's Vote of Shame," and editorials like the one in Business Day, proclaiming on the day of the vote that every MP who voted for the bill would "at that moment take personal responsibility for the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid that dismantles an aspect of our democracy -- a betrayal to haunt them forever."

Popular columnist Justice Malala told CNN that this ANC is "not seen as the ANC of Nelson Mandela." And indeed, the foundation that bears Mandela's name has weighed in with fixes that it says will right the wrongs in the bill.

Dissent like this arises from the concern about growing corruption in the country, including among government officials at the national and local levels. The fear is that the kind of investigative journalism that has exposed much of it would be deemed a threat to national security and put journalists behind bars.