Nadine Gordimer on South Africa’s Protection of State Information Bill

by    /  April 13, 2012  / No comments

This article is taken from a talk given by writer, activist, and Nobel Literature Prize winner Nadine Gordimer at Queen Elizabeth Hall in Southbank, London on March 14. In this excerpt Gordimer warns that South Africa’s Protection of State Information Bill will return the country to apartheid-era limits on free speech.

Under Apartheid

Nadine Gordimer, 2010

The regime of racism was maintained not alone by brutality — guns, violence, restrictive laws. It was upheld by elaborately extensive silencing of freedom of expression. The Suppression of Communism Act, 1950, had definitions of Communism which were vast. What was forbidden included promotion of industrial, political, economic and social change. Every aspect of communal, cultural and intellectual life.

In 1982 the Act became the Internal Security Act, which banned the African National Congress and Pan African Congress along with the South African Communist Party and retained almost all these other definitions of what was forbidden.

The Publications and Entertainments Act banned thousands of newspapers and books in South Africa from 1950 to 1990 — 40 years. The works of world writers, DH Lawrence, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, and Nabokov were banned along with the novels and non-fiction works of South African writers, Todd Matshikiza, William “Bloke” Modisane, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, André Brink, Can Themba, and three of my own novels. A taboo subject of everyday life was sexual relations between white and black. In the 1970s the films Jesus Christ Superstar, A Clockwork Orange, and Canterbury Tales were prohibited.

Freed of Apartheid

In the new South Africa reborn, 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 comes with the right to vote, which black, white, and any colour of our South African population took together for the first time ever, in 1994. But since 2010 there have been two parliamentary bills introduced which seek to deny that right. The Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal.

The Media Tribunal issue applies to the Press, both journalists and newspaper ownership, questioning the intentions of the powers of the Press’s ombudsman and the Press Code. If established the Tribunal will require journalists to submit to the Tribunal subjects they intend to investigate or which have been investigated and will write about, for approval, on grounds that these are seen by the Tribunal to be a threat to State security. These are not confined to the obvious such as defense matters, already secured by the Constitution. Any government official, whatever rank, may charge that accessing information pertaining to his or her activity should be an offense.

What holds the gag at hand, ready to shut any citizen’s mouth, as well as that of the press within the wide and detailed definition of security, is the overwhelming Protection of State Information Bill, passed in the National Assembly in November 2011 after stifling an 18-month public protest by journalists and civil society.

The Secrecy Bill, as it is known, closes, with the provision of prison sentences, any function for whistle blowers to expose the rampant corruption in the careers of individuals in government, industry, and finance. Recent losses to the State through corruption are more than R30 billion a year.

The Right to Know

The ad hoc committee of the National Council of the Provinces of South Africa, which is “processing the Protection of State Information Bill” with certain ameliorations intended to placate protest, has extended its April 8 deadline to report back and set a new deadline for decision on May 17.

The protest against the new Bill will rise, telling it on the mountain, this year 2012, when the Right to Know Campaign (a coalition of nearly 400 civil society organizations), the media fraternity, the National Editors Forum, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), will jointly convene a summit against it. I am among these South Africans who believe, and will continue to pursue, that it must be discarded in its entirety.

I sign off with a quotation from Justice William O Douglas examining a test of the First Amendment to to exercise free speech:

“The airing of ideas releases pressures which might otherwise become destructive… Full and free discussion keep a society from becoming stagnant and unprepared for the stresses and strains that work to tear civilization apart.”

This piece was originally published by Index On Censorship on March 16, 2012. It is reprinted with permission.

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