Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

The secrecy Bill: Why wearing black matters

The Secrets Will Come Out of the Box

Sanef, the National Press Club and the Right2Know campaign have issued a call to wear black on what has been dubbed Black Tuesday: when Parliament votes on the Protection of Information Bill. It’s a cause that has resonated with many, and there’s been plenty of discussion on social media platforms; #POIB and #SecrecyBill are top trending topics on Twitter. I’ll be suiting up in my black corporate battle gear, changing my avatars on Twitter and Facebook and posting a series of paintings devoted to the issue, one for every day of the week. (The subject lends itself to drawings of snakes and crocodiles and wasps.)

We all know full well that none of this campaigning by what the ANCYL’s Floyd Shivambu once dismissed as “desktop activists” will change Parliament’s mind, even if protestors plan to gather outside Luthuli House and Parliament. We have to rely on the Constitutional Court for that. And perhaps in the greater scheme of things it won’t make much of a difference. “Wear black to oppose the information bill? Why not light some incense while we’re at it, impotent lefty liberal pricks” tweeted @JohnnyCranko. Inevitably, the debate has been reduced to a race issue, by Don Mattera among others. (“Who the shit are they?” he’s quoted as saying.)

But here’s why wearing black and changing our avatars on Black Tuesday does make a difference. It makes support for the cause visible — and mutual visibility matters. When coordinating behaviour in any society, the I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know is essential. The moment something is out in the open, the moment it is there to be seen, it is much harder to maintain that tacit, somewhat polite, understanding that everything isn’t OK. As I reminded FoME Symposium at a talk in Bonn last month, this is the key to the power of social media, and why it has impacted on calls for democracy as it has in the Arab Spring and elsewhere. Social media makes things visible, and once things are visible, they cannot be wished away.

My hosts at the Deutsche Welle Akademie and my fellow delegates from across the world were very concerned about the secrecy Bill; it was the first thing they asked about. The world is watching us. Of course the risk with this type of campaign, as with others of its kind, is that it becomes wallpaper, the equivalent of in one ear and out the other. Does anybody notice the original ribbon, the red one that signifies HIV/Aids anymore? It’s hard to care all the time about something when there are so many other things that demand our attention, and only so much emotional energy available to expend. By next week most of us will have forgotten all about this. Many South Africans already inhabit a Dainfern of the mind: shut out the world behind security guards, pretend it isn’t there. Wearing black and changing our avatars makes it that much harder for them to do that.

“The point,” tweeted Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes, “is not a crude analogy with the criminal apartheid state, it is the recent memory of unfreedom. A resonance, not a comparison”. It’s up to all of us to ensure that our opposition to this bill and everything it embodies resonates through the weeks and months, perhaps the years to come. As Eusebius McKaiser pointed out on Facebook, this is about more than press freedom: it will have a negative effect on society at large, robbing the poor of the transparent government they’re entitled to.

Once it’s out there, nobody can pretend otherwise.

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