South Africa: The New Threat to Freedom

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Schalk van Zuydam/AP Images
A vigil against South Africa’s Secrecy Bill in front of Parliament, Cape Town, September 2011

The regime of racism in South Africa was maintained not only by brutality—guns, violence, restrictive laws. It was upheld by elaborately extensive silencing of freedom of expression. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 had definitions of communism that were vastly inclusive. What was forbidden included advocacy of industrial, political, economic, and social change.

In 1982 an updated version of the Suppression of Communism Act, the Internal Security Act, was passed, which banned the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress along with the South African Communist Party. It retained almost all of the previous definitions of what was forbidden.

The Publications and Entertainments Act of the apartheid regime banned thousands of newspapers and books in South Africa from 1950 to 1990. The works of world-famous writers, including D.H. Lawrence, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov, were prohibited along with the novels and nonfiction works of South African writers, including Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, André Brink, Can Themba, and three of my own novels. Among the taboo subjects of everyday life was sexual relations between white and black. In the 1970s the films Jesus Christ Superstar, A Clockwork Orange, and The Canterbury Tales were prohibited.

In the new South Africa that was reborn in the early 1990s, with its freedom hard-won from apartheid, we now have the imminent threat of updated versions of the suppression of freedom of expression that gagged us under apartheid. The right to know must continue to accompany the right to vote that black, white, and any other color of our South African population could all experience for the first time in 1994. But since 2010 there have been two parliamentary bills introduced that seek to deny that right: the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal.

The Media Tribunal is intended to apply to members of the press, both journalists and newspaper owners. It questions the powers of the press’s existing ombudsman and the Press Code (both of which can already be used to challenge whether an article should be published). If established, the tribunal will require journalists to submit to it the subjects they intend to investigate or have investigated and will write about. They must inform the tribunal of these subjects so it can decide whether they pose a threat to state security.

The subjects they must submit to the tribunal are not confined to obvious matters such as defense; military information is already protected by the Constitution from disclosure. Under the new tribunal, any government official, of whatever rank, may charge that the gathering of information pertaining to his or her activity should be an offense.

Moreover, there is an additional gag that can be used to shut any citizen’s mouth, as well…


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