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Closing down democratic space is what is really counter-revolutionary

Private and unpublished correspondence by the South African poet Roy Campbell recently came into my possession. In a letter to Francis C. Slater, written in Rome sometime between September 1938 and February 1939, Campbell writes that “journalists are the greatest Social Poison the world has yet seen”.

He goes on: “It is a treat to live in a country where the journalists are muzzled: I have always regarded them as the most poisonous parasites that ever fattened by making trouble and harassing the nerves of the people.”

Tellingly, and it shouldn’t surprise one, the letter continues with a defence of Fascism: “You get a very rough and distorted idea [from the media] of men who like Hitler and Mussolini have saved their countries.”

He complains: “But now they [journalists] are working up trouble about Hitler’s jew purge… it is difficult to understand what the hysteria is about in the British Press against Hitler.”

In the end, Campbell did land up in the Allied Forces (appropriately enough as a military censor for part of his tour of duty). Professionally he never really recovered, thanks to his Fascist views, and unlike Ezra Pound, he wasn’t too great a poet to ignore.

I use Campbell as an example to show that even people you might think would know better, often don’t.

It has been unfortunate that the debate around the Protection of State Information Bill (dubbed the “secrecy bill”) has become couched in the public mind as a battle between the liberal bourgeois media and a majority government. Supporters of the majority party have taken umbrage, seeing the media as tilting at windmills, basing objections on what the government is alleged to be plotting.

Many in government quite sincerely do not believe the secrecy bill was designed to cover up corruption or to put an end to investigative journalism. The point is that government’s and for that matter journalists’ motivations are not actually the issue (therefore I won’t conjecture on why the secrecy bill has garnered such political will-power behind it that it could be ramrodded through the National Assembly, when so many vital pieces of legislation are often left to decompose for years).

On SABC radio, some callers against the secrecy bill (apart from the usual rabid right-wing regulars) made convincing arguments for why it was bad for democracy in its current form. Many in favour of the bill however, did not make cogent argument for it or rebuff the criticisms. Those supporting the bill merely resorted to attacking its critics alleged motivations or launched into diatribes about the media – “You’re just anti-ANC”. Most bizarre of all, activists have been accused of being foreign spies. Tell that to former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils or the late Kader Asmal who both opposed the bill in its current form. It was so sad, and so idiotic, I had to switch the radio off.

The debate in the National Assembly wasn’t much better, with ANC MP Landers declaring, “Those opposed to this Bill want P W Botha’s 1982 Act to remain in our statute books.” Such a puerile manipulation of the truth is risible, and as IFP MP JH van der Merwe was quick to point out, MP Landers “attacks Mr P W Botha, but he was a Deputy Minister in his Cabinet”.

The Communist Party’s Ben Turok slipped out of the assembly instead of voting for the bill, but SACP Secretary General Blade Nzimande did vote, even as the workers of COSATU prepare to take the bill to the Constitutional Court. Nzimande, who happens to be the minister in charge of our universities, was quoted saying that opposition to the secrecy bill was just “titillating, white suburban politics”. There is truth in this, but it is a cause for alarm, for those who will be hardest hit and most affected by state secrecy are the poor. Historically of course, the perverters of communism were always big on secrets.

What most South Africans hoped for after the demise of the apartheid regime was an open society where widespread state secrecy would be a thing of the past. But we don’t even have to look to the apartheid era to find innumerable examples of where the government has abused our right to information to cover up its vices. The last decade has shown that our own intelligence services are far from trustworthy. We even had a sitting president tell us that.

The ANC government may not be behaving much differently from governments all over the world, who want to hide what they do from the public gaze. They do not like being watched. Yet given our history and the fragility of our democracry, we should have learned the lesson and be aiming to be one of the most transparent countries in the world. Instead, the ANC Chief Whip holds up the United States of America as an example of best practice, a country which after a decade of extraordinary and opaque security legislation seems firmly on the road to becoming a police state unless it is checked by civil society.

Unlike the human individual, the state should have very little right to privacy. We know from bitter experience where secrecy leads. That is why the ANC as principal architects of the constitution drafted it the way they did, having been on the receiving end of a totalitarian state for decades.”“Never, never, and never again,” Nelson Mandela promised us.

But with transparency comes accountability, and unfortunately there is too much to be embarrassed about.

To sum up, if anything is counter-revolutionary, it is the Protection of State Information Bill, not its critics.

This has been a fraught debate and many are tiring of it. I thought it was appropriate though for a first blog on Thought Leader. Democracy is the hardest political system in the world to maintain, and there is no way to maintain it without transparency. Like HIV/AIDS, the threat cannot be restated enough, and civil society must make its objections heard repeatedly, until the matter is settled. And if the secrecy bill passes in its present form in the NCOP and the matter is settled in favour of government, I for one won’t shut up about it thereafter either.

But this is not an era to be despondent. For as Wikileaks and live-streaming video technologies have shown the world, any government attempting to restrict our freedom to information is flying in the face of the 21st century. Would Roy Campbell be penning those letters from Rome if videos of concentration camps and mass shootings were being uploaded on YouTube by whistleblowers in the Wehrmacht?

If you want to know why, based on the substance of the bill, the ANC is incorrect in its support for this bill, and why it is a threat to your freedom to know what is happening in your own country, then read further here:

Glenda Daniels in the Mail & Guardian gives a succinct summary of the major flaws in the Bill.

COSATU’s Zwelinzima Vavi outlines what is wrong with the Bill.

Prof Pierre de Vos gives a constitutional law perspective on the numerous manifest failings of the Bill.

And visit the resources page of the Right2Know campaign.


  • Brent Meersman

    Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit