The Right2Know (R2K) campaign added a new voice to organised civil society when it formally constituted itself at a summit in Cape Town last week.
Non-governmental and community-based organisations and individuals launched R2K in August last year to fight the Protection of Information Bill (the “secrecy” Bill) before Parliament.
It was led by volunteers.
The Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal have since held congresses where working groups were elected and principles and tactics debated.
R2K’s formal shape was consolidated with the election of national leaders last week: Alison Tilley from the Open Democracy Advice Centre, Sithembile Mbete from Idasa, Siphiwe Segodi and Jayshree Pather from the Freedom of Expression Institute, Quinton Kippen from the Democracy Development Programme, Cedile Nkwame, a Western Cape R2K organiser, Mark Weinberg from the Alternative Information Development Centre, Hennie van Vuuren from the Institute of Security Studies, Dale McKinley and Ashley Louw from the Delft Integrated Network and Glenda Daniels.
The immediate focus remains opposition to the secrecy Bill, on the grounds that the law in its current form will “strangle democracy”.
But the summit was seen as a milestone in shifting R2K towards a broader-based movement concerned with access to information.
R2K plans to root the struggle for the free flow of information in community struggles over the lack of service delivery and accountability; abuse of power in the public and private sectors; corruption, nepotism, cronyism and greed; and inequality, poverty and profits before people.
A chorus of discontent was raised by speaker after speaker at a packed rally organised by R2K at the Mowbray Town Hall last Tuesday night. The angry mood suggested parallels with the militant upsurge in the countries of North Africa.
The stirrings in civil society follows the implosion of the Congress of the People and steady erosion of the Inkatha Freedom Party, creating space for other challenges to the ruling party.
It parallels initiatives such as the recent Conference of the Democratic Left, which also aims to advance grassroots struggles.
The R2K summit highlighted the connection between the free flow of information, accountability and service provision, and an education campaign will now communicate this to people on the ground.
Since its launch, more than 500 organisations and 11 000 individuals have signed up in support of the R2K campaign.
The plan is to use every peaceful means to stop the secrecy Bill, including mass action, marches, posters, roadshows, house visits and pamphleteering.
The deadline for submissions on the legislation has now been moved to the end of March.
The summit was told that as much as there was an original push from government to rush the Bill through in the name of “national interest” and “security”, the committee was now stalling.
Advocates of the Bill argue that the Promotion of Access to Information Act balances out the proposed restrictions on information.
But 64% of requests for information made through the Act have not been answered, according to research by Media Monitoring Africa and other organisations.
The bottom-up approach to democracy was emphasised in breakaway discussion groups at the summit.
Among the issues raised were how R2K can be explained in simple terms, rather than in legal and academic language; the key problems in the secrecy Bill, especially the lack of a public interest defence and protection of whistle-blowers; the shortcomings of the Act; and how the media can be persuaded to cover the struggles of poor people.
The summit heard that the privileged find it easier to access information because they can afford the lengthy legal processes involved.
Delegates felt that rather than preaching about the free flow of information, the right approach was to highlight what municipalities were doing, or not doing, for instance, about the current billing crisis, and how this affected families, individuals and especially poor communities.
Glenda Daniels is advocacy co- ordinator at the Mail & Guardian‘s Centre for Investigative Journalism. She was elected to R2K’s national working committee
This article was produced by amaBhungane, investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit initiative to enhance capacity for investigative journalism in the public interest. www.amabhungane.co.za.