34 years ago we had a ‘Black Wednesday’ right here in South Africa.
I was six.
I knew nothing of it.
Probably because the enforcement of ‘black’ was immensily effective.
Even before that Wednesday.
On 19 October 1977 the apartheid regime banned publications including The World and Weekend World newspapers and Pro Veritate (a Christian publication), alongside 19 black organisations.
Scores of people were detained.
Others were ripped away from their families.
It was a vicious clamp down on the Black Consciousness Movement.
Today the South African Government’s National Assembly voted in (229 against 107) the Protection of Information Bill.
The hotly contested Bill was first introduced in 2008 by then-intelligence minster Ronnie Kasrils.
The bill was meant to replace a piece of apartheid-era legislation that governed the classification of state secrets. Kasrils sought to create legislation that would protect state secrets but also uphold the constitutional principal of transparent governance. It included a provision that would allow whistleblowers to leak information that was in the public interest without fear of reprisal.
According to Kasrils, this version of the Bill was never tabled in Parliament and was scrapped by ruling party representatives at the committee stage after he resigned from government in September 2008.
When the Bill reappeared, its provisions were even more draconian than before. The new draft sought to create a law that would allow any organ of state, from the largest government department down to the smallest municipality, to classify any document as secret and set out harsh penalties of up to 25 years in jail for whistleblowers.
It came under heavy fire from all quarters of civil society, who said it would obstruct the free flow of information, usher in a new era of secrecy and pose a threat to democracy.
In 1994 Nelson Mandela said: ‘A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.’
Mandela, icon of the freedom struggle believed: ‘It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.’
Nelson Mandela knew what he was taslking about.
He tasted the bitter fruits of a country without a free press.
He tasted the loss.
He swallowed the pain.
He stood at the graves.
Fought the injustice hidden behind unwritten & unspoken words.
He also said: ‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’
Tonight I go to bed in a country in which this freedom has been lost.
And I wonder, will I come before the choice which Nelson Mandela had to face?
With Nelson Mandela’s birthday this year, the Irish singer Bono said: ‘A greater battle is going on, one for the soul of this country.’
Some turn to the victorious faith of a potato farmer.
Others turn to that big sweeping river, denial.
Some focus all their energy and effort on wealth – accumelated matter the eletist saviour of their children and grandchildren.
Who remembers the weak?
Who spares a thought for the vulnerable?
Who will sacrifice their existence for the hopeful freedom of others?
Today a thick black line was drawn through the efforts of Nelson Mandela.
And Govan Mbeki.
And Ahmed Kathrada.
And Walter Sisulu.
And Desmond Tutu.
And thousands and thousands and thousands of ordinary nameless South Africans – fathers and mothers and grandparents of this generation – who gave their being for the dream of freedom & equality.
I wonder if I will be torn from my children?
I wonder if I would have the courage?
Or will I flee to the apparent safety of another government’s arms?
Or will I blind myself to the pain & injustice?
I wonder if those who are supposed to be proponents of justice & love & grace & fairness – if they will be as silent in this age as they had been in previous ages?
I wonder if they will again be accomplices to the attrocities, as they had been in the past?
Nelson Mandela also said: ‘If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.’
Goodness & Forgiveness can only be offered once the vicious destroyers of goodness have been relived of their scepter.
I wonder who of us will be willing to pay the price for that relief?
For clicking won’t cut it.
Nor will typing away at a blog.
The pen isn’t always stronger than the sword.
I wonder who of us will be willing?
I wonder who of us will be true to our being?