Was Lenin a liberator or an oppressor during the Russian Revolution? This is a regular question in school history today. The examiners probably expect an either/or answer.
To say Lenin was both liberator and oppressor is a complicated matter, yet he was, in almost the same way as the ANC can be viewed as liberator and oppressor today. The organisation liberated us from apartheid, but now wishes to oppress us with the draconian Protection of Information Act, or “Secrecy Bill”.
Lenin was a clever man. He also famously said that the formerly oppressed tend to imitate their oppressors. Apparently the worst insult anyone can pay the ANC today is to compare it with the old National Party.
But, just like the NP, the ANC wants to hide secrets from society — arms deals, corruption, patronage and greed. As it seeks to hide such things, so it reveals its Stalinist colours.
The ANC had the benefit of full submissions from civil society on the Bill last year, including its alliance partner, Cosatu. This year it received submissions from opposition parties. It has effectively chosen to ignore these submissions on any substantive level.
Instead, it wants to forge ahead with a voting procedure, which it will win. It would take a mere 51% vote in favour of the clauses and ultimately the Bill itself, as it stands, for it to become an Act — which will then be challenged in the Constitutional Court by civil society organisations and Cosatu.
In a nutshell
The main problems with the Secrecy Bill are:
- Any organ of state can classify information as it pleases (there are more than 1 000 organs of state);
- It has no public-interest defence, meaning information deemed to be in the public interest cannot be published; and
- It prescribes harsh penalties, for instance, a 25-year maximum jail sentence can be imposed on those, such as a journalist or whistle-blower, in possession of a classified document.
There are 51 clauses, most of them problematic, but these are the main issues.
In a nutshell, as it stands, the Secrecy Bill is unconstitutional. The losers are society and our democracy.
This is about much more than the interests of the media or the Right2Know (R2K) coalition, formed last year to oppose the Bill. R2K now has about 400 organisations and 13 000 individuals signed up to its campaign.
When R2K visited poor communities this year, including those in Sebokeng, Soweto, Tshwane, Harrismith and Durban, wide-ranging secrets — from health and environmental issues to tender scandals — were discussed. Far from the Secrecy Bill issue being elitist or solely a media issue, R2K found that the need to access information transcended class, race and gender.
So why is the ANC doing this? There are four pieces to this picture, of different sizes.
The small picture has the ANC’s Cecil Burgess and Llewellyn Landers as the main players in the relevant parliamentary committee. These two are probably embarrassed they have made so little progress in amending the Bill and now want to forge ahead with voting. More probably, they are being harassed from above.
The slightly larger picture shows that Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele, whose wife was recently found guilty of drug-dealing, must be more than a little embarrassed that he, as head of state security — of all portfolios — had no knowledge of his wife’s activities. Diminished in his peers’ estimation, he now wants to impress his superiors by fast-tracking the Bill.
The larger picture features President Jacob Zuma, who ascended to the ANC leadership at the Polokwane conference in December 2007. The top priority on the to-do list emerging from this policy conference was to destroy the Scorpions — and the ANC did so six months later. A linked priority was to look into the possibility of a media tribunal to make journalists more “accountable”.
And then there’s an even larger picture, which relates to the history of the ANC in exile. It is the culture of secrecy, of Stalinism, as in the repressive control, suppression of dissent and criticism, some argue had to prevail for the ANC to survive the onslaught of the apartheid state during the liberation struggle.
Cosatu was not part of this Stalinist, top-down culture. It has always had an open, bottom-up structure.
Cosatu’s leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, has been vociferous and fearless in his criticism of former president Thabo Mbeki’s anti-democratic tendencies and this week Cosatu released a strongly worded statement on the Secrecy Bill, calling it “a threat to South Africans’ democratic right to be fully informed on matters of public interest”.
The Act, said Cosatu, “could be abused to cover up information about corruption and misuse of public resources and to criminalise whistle-blowers who try to expose crime and corruption”.
It’s time for the ANC to ditch the Stalinist tendencies and stop the intellectual arrogance — especially that of conflating “the party” and “the people”.
We understand the tradition of secrets you came from in exile. You had to watch your backs. It was necessary then, but those days are over.
You are in power and can afford to be more confident than hinted at by a Secrecy Bill. With civil society and the media you have an opportunity to create a great democracy. Don’t blow it with this Bill.
There are three weeks to the June 24 deadline, when the parliamentary committee’s work on the Bill must be completed. Can the Bill, ANC.
Take the clauses to communities and start consulting properly, from scratch, or face a fight with civil society — which will receive enormous international attention, especially when it all lands in the Constitutional Court.
Lenin lost his greatness when he started hiding under a veil of secrecy. His successor, Stalin, condemned people to death for criticising “the party”, the leadership and official ideological positions.
ANC, don’t lose your liberation legacy because of the Secrecy Bill. Leave the Stalinist colours in the past where they belong.
Glenda Daniels is advocacy coordinator at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) and is on the Right2Know’s national working group.