Adam Haupt
Adam Haupt

10 signs that SA democracy is toast

In case you’ve missed it in the midst of media frenzies about puppets in court, murder trials dismissed, or beauty competitions won, South Africa’s democracy is in trouble. Here are 10 reasons why our constitutionally enshrined democratic rights are under threat:

1. Threats of establishing a media appeals tribunal

Not so long ago, the ruling party mooted the idea of a media appeals tribunal to hold news media to account for their sensationalist transgressions, notwithstanding the fact that complainants already have recourse to a Press Ombud and the courts. At this stage, the plans are on ice, but could very well be put back on the table again if points number two and three are anything to go by.

2. The Protection of State Information Bill gets passed

This legislation stands to erode the letter and spirit of our Constitution. Access to information is an important element of a functional public sphere. Civil society’s rights of access to knowledge help to make government transparent and accountable to its citizens.

3. The Film and Publication Board’s plans to regulate/censor the internet

The Film and Publication Board’s new policy (which the public had not yet seen at the time of writing) reportedly plans to regulate what citizens publish/upload onto the internet. Recently the chief executive of the Film and Publication Board, Themba Wakashe, spoke about these plans at a panel hosted by the Arterial Network (see my response to the chief executive at 1hr 06mins and 1hr 36mins).

The promise of the world wide web was that anyone with internet access could generate and share knowledge beyond the limitations of gatekeeping in mass media contexts that are dominated by corporate monopolies or in totalitarian states. The advent of social media certainly makes it possible for citizens to be producers of media content, especially in African contexts where citizens can increasingly bridge the digital divide via mobile access to the web. This could potentially go a long way towards addressing economic disparities, but can also assist civil society to access and share information in the interests of transparency and accountability. Are the board’s concerns about sex offenders and pornographers in the digital age a Trojan horse in the battle to limit political dissent?

4. Plans to withdraw government advertising from critical newspapers
If reports that government plans to “punish” critical newspapers are true, the Mail & Guardian, City Press and Sunday Times might be in for tough times. Advertising revenue is vital to any viable media concern, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s research on the propaganda model suggests.

5. Protesters are shot with live ammunition
SA has seen increasing numbers of scenarios where national or provincial government responds to civil protests with violence, but the brutality of police action in Marikana stands out as a key turning point in our history.

6. Members of social movements are murdered

It appears that the efforts of social movements that are established to address the basic needs of poor communities are met with violent opposition, as a recent report by GroundUp suggests. A chilling quote from a GroundUp article on the issue: “In a paper published by the Institute for Security Studies last year, author David Bruce estimates that there have been 450 political assassinations since 1994, 25% of which have occurred since 2003.”

7. Activists and scholars are investigated to level allegations of treason against them

It appears of that levels of paranoia are increasing in a constitutional context where diverse political perspectives and opposing ideological positions are theoretically encouraged. Instead, we are beginning to see actions that can only be read as attempts at intimidation and harassment of activists and scholars.

8. Attacks on the judiciary

It seems as if any critic of the ruling party gets branded counter-revolutionary, including the members of the judiciary itself. Conspiracy theories abound and the rhetoric employed raises concerns about whether constitutional principles of the separation of powers is fast becoming the casualty of the battle to protect the president from calls for accountability.

9. Media activists/culture jammers/artists are branded as vandals or as disrespectful

Whether it is Brett Murray’s the The Spear being called defamatory and disrespectful, or whether it is Tokolos Stencils’ culture jamming being called vandalism, it is clear that neither the ANC or DA can abide political criticism. Like The Spear, the Tokolos culture jam of the Ray Ban sculpture on Sea Point promenade in Cape Town generated a great deal of debate. The response by the artist Michael Elion and the City of Cape Town? It’s vandalism, thereby invoking the discourse of property rights and sidelining talk of free speech rights.

10. The purge of SARS officials

If reports of a purge of SARS senior staff members are true, it would be in line with the dissolution of the Scorpions, which was very efficient. Another entity that diligently acts on its mandate is the office of the Public Protector. In other words, entities that are empowered to ensure processes of transparency and accountability in the private sector as well as in government are under attack, thereby rendering the promise of our Constitution empty.

What is to be done? This list is not meant to incite the right-wing trolls among us into further tirades that polarise us along racial lines. It is meant to outline some of the threats to our constitutional democracy and encourage us all to become active citizens, regardless of our class positions or ideological orientations.

This activity needs to go beyond merely voting for political parties and grumbling on comment threads of online articles or on social media. We need to engage in honest dialogue with each other about the failures of the state. The first step is for us to listen to each other …

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