Liberation movements have proved, especially in Africa, to be double-edged swords. Yielded typically by a relatively small group of liberators and backed by the masses, they scythe down opposing colonial governments and sweep to power amid much fanfare. That, according to William Gumede (author of The Democracy Gap: Africa’s Wasted Years, and Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC), gives them a cloak (albeit temporary) of invincibility. Gumede says that citizens of Africa raise the leaders of liberation movements to godlike untouchability and that the leaders take it as a licence to plunder unchecked.
While most will flat out deny genuflecting or making the gesture of the cross in prayer to Jacob Zuma and his government for the better life that was promised, it cannot be denied that lately, the ANC has been godlike – working in mysterious ways and leaving prayers seemingly unanswered; the latter resulting in violent and widespread service delivery protests a few months before the country hosted the soccer world cup.
As a liberation movement that became government, many believed that the ANC would be different. In a country with one of the most liberal and forward-thinking constitutions in the world, it was believed that no amount of populist support would ever allow this liberation movement-cum-government to shirk accountability and plunder unchecked. Anecdotal evidence, however, seems to suggest that this belief may be wrong – the ANC may be no different to other liberation movement governments in Africa.
The party plans to table a new act that potentially gives any state agency, government department or municipality the discretion to classify any public information as secret, with severe punishment (up to 25 years in jail) for anyone who discloses classified information. Coupled with that, the party will go to their national general council later this month with a discussion of a media appeals tribunal on the agenda. The party says that the tribunal aims to address “concerns raised by a number of citizens and complaints from a number of people who have been the victims of unfairness and unsatisfactory decisions of [the print media’s] self-regulatory body”.
News and civil society organisations are outraged. They believe the proposed act and the tribunal to be a deliberate move away from accountability, which was virtually non-extent to begin with, and will make it easier to cover up the corruption within the ANC-led government that has been making the headlines of late.
The consensus from a series of public discussions on the tribunal and proposed act hosted by news and civil society organisations is that the ANC has failed to equip people with the tools to exercise their right to access public information, and now seeks to completely eliminate that right. Writer Sindiwe Magona, in one of the public discussions, said it is ordinary people who employ members of parliament, not the other way around. A very true and valid point, however, since the outcry has not been from people within their constituency, the ANC seems to be ignoring the protests and forging ahead. And despite campaigns like Right2Know, which is a civil society and media initiative to educate the public and mobilise them in protest, the people who are said to potentially lose the most from the proposed act have yet to register their discontent.
And let it not be said that ordinary South Africans lack the means to register their discontent. The recently suspended public service strike and the service delivery protests from earlier this year are evidence that when faced with issues that are in their interest, ordinary South Africans will register their discontent – dancing and singing loudly all the way to the buildings of parliament. It would appear that the challenge facing civil society organisations, the media and even opposition parties who sense an opportunity to unseat (or at least steal seats from) the ANC is convincing ordinary South Africans that the ANC is no god and that criticising the party is not blasphemy. The irony here though is that if the South African media were what the ANC says it should be – a voice for the people, by the people – then it is likely that the ANC would not have had the latitude to put forward the act and propose a media tribunal, and even if they had, the backlash would have been swift and decisive.