Tyrants dance when the voices of civil society are silenced and in South Africa the band is starting to play.

There are many reasons for disquiet; an array of laws have been lined up over the last two years focussing on curtailing liberties, particularly freedom of expression, and now the University of KwaZulu Natal is trying to shut down the Centre for Civil Society.

Legislation that disables freedom of expression includes the Film and Publications Act as amended but more serious threats are backing up in the parliamentary pipeline.

The Protection of Information Bill, like apartheid’s Terrorism legislation, has broad repressive intent. It will block free access to information in the “national interest” – note the term used is ‘national’ not ‘public’ — a way of telling us that we are going back to the time of Big Broeder or perhaps now, Big Bru. When the state is elevated above the citizenry, as this legislation intends, by putting the ‘nation’ above ‘citizens’, then tyranny is but a whisper away.

‘National interest’ would include “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” such as “the pursuit of justice, democracy, economic growth, free trade, a stable monetary system and sound international relations”. The bill would limit access to “details of criminal investigations and police and law enforcement methods” as well as “economic, scientific or technological matters vital to the Republic’s stability, security, integrity and development”. Theoretically you would not be able to ask for details of a crime against you that is being investigated and you certainly could not write about it without approval.

But what about our constitutional right to freedom of expression? Media freedom? Personal freedoms? The biggest concern to law makers at this stage appears to be how much they can get away with without us knowing about it. If they can stop tawdry investigative journalists, muck-raking newspapers and harsh interviewers on radio or television, then bribery, corruption and nepotism can flourish and the country can disintegrate like many nations across the continent while the wealth of the corrupt rises. Politics has become about the personal in South Africa – and in this case ‘the personal’ means individual politicians.

There are institutions trying to stop this. The media, skimpy though it often is, still has some great journalists committed to democratic ideals, publishers still produce books with provocative and thoughtful information, the Freedom Of Expression Institute is a national treasure and Durban’s Centre for Civil Society is a world-regarded forum for challenging and open debate.

The speaker list the Centre attracts is astonishing. It’s without a doubt the greatest asset that city of declining fortunes has. Speakers have included economist Naomi Klein, Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, filmmaker John Pilger, Kenyan feminist Eunice Sahle and Zimbabwe democracy activists Judith Todd and Joy Mabengwe, former Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Mugabe torture victim Grace Kwinjeh, UN special rapporteur for housing Miloon Kothari, British MP George Galloway, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, women’s rights campaigner Pregs Govender, agrarian academic Lungisile Ntsebeza, trade union leader Dinga Sikwebu, and authors Mahmood Mamdani, Arundhati Roy, Walden Bello and Tariq Ali among others.

In 2007 some 5 000 people attended their public events – discussion forums, microfilm festivals, seminars, the prestigious Harold Wolpe lectures and literary celebrations. Such attendance figures are almost unheard of nationwide where universities and business schools applaud themselves if they get 30 people to a free public event; at CSS they regular attract crowds of 100 or more.

The energetic director of CCS, Professor Patrick Bond, whose contract expired in 2007 but who has remained on while a replacement is sought, has an assiduously cultivated global network and is the catalyst behind making a small centre internationally respected.
However, there has long been a tense relationship between the Centre and University vice-chancellor Professor Malegapuru Makgoba who a while ago banned one of UKZN’s best known academics Ashwin Desai from the campus.

On July 16, Dean McCracken informed Professor Vishnu Padayachee, head of the School of Development Studies and Bond, that the CCS would be closed because of financial reasons even though Bond could show the centre had raised double what its budget and operating expenses are.

And this after a university review headed by Dr Peter Krum of the Department of Physics reported in February after a five month investigation and “hundreds of hours of deliberations” that “closing down or removing CCS from UKZN does not appear to be an option as it was rejected by all interviewees and panel members. Through its international recognition and standing, CCS has put UKZN on a world map in social science — a position the University dare not risk to lose.”

Despite that on July 30, Dean McCracken announced that Deputy Vice Chancellor Fikile Mazibuko had decided that CCS would be closed on December 31 2008 and that its “good” projects (unspecified) would be brought into a “refocused” civil society programme. Doesn’t that remind you of how the police have watered down crime investigations by getting rid of specialised units including the Scorpions?

On August 13 the Faculty Board for Humanities, Social Science and Development voted 33 to 1 (with a half-dozen abstentions) to support “the continuation of the Centre for Civil Society.” The Board established a subcommittee to come up with solutions before the end of the month. Why “solutions need to be sought” with the overwhelming support the centre has received is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the best solution is a complete shake up of the senior administrative ranks at the university and the board.

Academics from around the world and key South African civil society institutions including Cosatu have leapt to the defence of CCS – it is after all, South Africa’s first and only institute devoted to civil society and investigating and perpetuating the ideals of public activism.

The UKZN action must be seen against a background of progressively thinner-skinned leaders in senior echelons of state institutions, whether it is government, universities, parastatals or municipalities where “baas” mentalities are re-emerging, this time though the baas is usually black, but similar to his or her old apartheid master believes that he or she deserves unquestioning obedience.

In September the contracts of five Constitutional Court judges, including that of fiercely independent Kate O Reagan, come to an end. The question we all need to ask is will government stack that court with less than ethical judges or will we see fine minds appointed to that bench? Some of its decisions have in recent times already been the subject of less than favourable comment in legal circles. The independence of our courts is a crucial element we cannot allow to falter, but already it is.

South Africa is a society where we argue loud and often – it’s rarely personal and it’s almost always political. Our passion for our society, our determination to say: “don’t talk kak” to politicians, big business or anyone who attempts to lie or cheat is our greatest South African virtue. It is that which holds at bay the Robert Mugabes, Charles Taylors and others who would love to rule our society.

Our fragile democracy is being torn. If we allow one arm of civil society to collapse or be forced to close, if we allow laws that curb freedoms, we will all be at risk. Or as Pastor Niemoller wrote of Nazi Germany and persistent erosions of freedoms and arrests: “when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
Our constitution was written in blood; we should never forget that.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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