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Casting a vote on the Protection of State Information Bill

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A critical look at the hidden & not-so-hidden agendas behind R2K, a new and powerful South African civil society grouping standing against the government's Protection of State Information Bill (aka …

A critical look at the hidden & not-so-hidden agendas behind R2K, a new and powerful South African civil society grouping standing against the government's Protection of State Information Bill (aka Secrecy Bill).

Published in: News & Politics

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  • 1. Casting a vote on the Protection ofState Information BillBy Abimashal da CostaThe protest earlier this month in Cape Town by people in support of the Protection of StateInformation Bill (POSIB), has struck a deep chasm in this country. That the march was organised bymembers and friends of the ANC, SACP and SANCO in the Western Cape, gave the Right2Know (R2K)campaign the opportunity to skilfully politicise the debate by saying that for the first time in theANC’s history, sections of the party had marched against a campaign that has “popular support fromacross all sections of society”.Herein lays the deep division that the campaign against POSIB has opened in this country. On theone hand our ruling party is against the people, and on the other hand R2K is supported by thepeople. That it was the first time the ANC or even sections of it had marched against a “people’scampaign”, as R2K explicitly implies it is, then yes it would be the first time even to my recollection.But that R2K is a people’s campaign or even representative of the public interest in the first place, isin itself a reasonable question to pose because their accusation against the ANC and also ourgovernment is quite harsh.The chasm exposes the murky new articulation of civil society that is emerging from the coat-tails ofneo-liberalism and extending a dangerous delusion over some very progressive sections of oursociety. It is the real politics behind opposition to this Bill and which many progressive, and evenleft- leaning organisations and individuals, have been wittingly or unwittingly co-opted into.In the last round of formal public hearings on POSIB, other organisations some affiliated and othersnot affiliated to R2K, made presentations mostly decrying the Bill in no less way than R2K. At the topof R2K’s list of demands is that legislation such as this (about classifying information) should applyonly to the security sector. It is what is known as the over-broad scope of this Bill. If anything, thisBill should apply only to the police, military, intelligence, navy and security services.The next critical demand of R2K is that of a public interest override. Irrespective what the Bill saysabout classified information and sanctions against its release, offenders must be able to argue thatthey acted in the public interest and be spared punishment. The rhetoric motivating these demandsremain for the time being just that, rhetoric: guarding against corruption, preventing governmentexcesses, protecting the people’s right to know and the more politically derisive, guarding againstthe rise of securocrats and a centralised security cluster.Between these two demands, amplified considerably also by the media, is a political economy ofaccess to information that we might ignore at our own peril. I’m referring here to the economicforces stimulating the opposition discourse around the POSIB. On the surface it may seem as if thereare no economic forces behind opposition to the Bill. The only economic interests lie on the side ofthose who might want to hide corruption and steal public monies. The general inference of course is
  • 2. that such is the way of our government and anyone who supports this Bill. As for those who opposethe Bill, they only have the public interest and the people’s right to know at heart.This has also been taken up by opportunistic political forces historically opposed to the ANC, andwith no timidity on the part of R2K to welcome them into its ranks. Together they are riding on thewave of a liberal articulation of human rights, even though R2K protests against its liberalism on thebasis that it has a radical approach to transforming the media outside a liberal paradigm. It does notdetract from its liberal oppositional approach to POSIB, which amounts to the self-determination ofindividuals for access to information and protecting the individual (and as many public institutions aspossible), from undue state regulation (in this case with respect to information).This liberal outlook is the dominant discourse that has come to coalesce among global financialinstitutions who are pushing neo-liberalism as the way of life for the world. The primary thrust ofneo-liberalism is to stimulate economic growth and investment, which means a good investmentclimate for global corporations, trade liberalization, privatization of state assets, less state spendingin the social sector, and minimal regulation of the private sector market. The development andenrichment of a nation, according to neoliberalism, happens through a deregulated market economythat will efficiently respond to the needs of the people.Neo-liberalism is a fundamental new tool of oppression in this world. The net effect of itsdevelopment discourse is that citizens have to forego a sense of entitlement from the state, andacquire an entrepreneurial citizen identity that derives from the liberal values of independence andautonomy. An “active civil society” being the buzzwords that go with this. So in this paradigm, thesocial and political causes of poverty are minimized, and instead poverty is seen as the result of lackof access, capacity or opportunity. You are poor because you don’t have access to jobs and goodeducation. You are poor because you don’t have the capacity to think creatively of how to enter themarket. This area has poor service delivery, because people can’t access information about what hasbeen earmarked for them. And so on. In this discourse, the state is represented as corrupt and hence inept at representing the will of thepeople, whereas civil society is seen as the honest brokers of the “people’s interests”. Hence the riseof NGO’s to service and look after the public interest. There is no concern for democracy and humanrights in this equation, as long as the markets are open. Of course, if they are not open, then liberaldemocracy is the primary device with which to pry it open and the bullet by which to shoot downstate interference. An effective policy for trade liberalization and privatization requires unobtrusivestate apparatus and a dynamic civil society.But an “active civil society” based on liberalism does not equal a democratic civil society, eventhough the two meanings are often conflated. Whereas liberalism promotes self-determination forthe individual and protecting the individual from state and societal regulation, democracy involvesthe state and its people actively constructing public institutions and a public sphere that guaranteesthe welfare of the majority.It is difficult perhaps for R2K to see how it has become a virulent agent of this agenda, or perhapseven how the POSIB stands at the coalface of the global neo-liberal pressures bearing down on ourgovernment. The difficulty lies in the fact that this neo-liberal thrust has as intimate bedfellows themulti-lateral donor agencies that fund the public interest NGO’s who have been the facilitating armof R2K’s activities. The fact is that R2K is itself embedded in a donor agenda and has then furtherenmeshed this agenda into the popular struggles of grassroots organisations. A more laughablecontention from some quarters who are themselves virulently opposed to neo-liberalism, is that thepassage of POSIB in parliament is in fact symptomatic of the ANC’s own neo-liberal thrust.
  • 3. R2K’S funding and funders, the organisation boasts, is open and yes, it has received lots of moneysince its inception. It could have spent over a R1-million in the past year alone just to fund itsposters and paraphernalia, its offices around the country, and most importantly, its ability to bus insupporters and compensate people for attending meetings. But these are all rather petty issuesabout the campaign when you consider the full political import of its advocacy. Furthermore, thenational schisms arising from R2K’s “people’s campaign”, should call for a moment of deep reflectionof how NGO’s and other progressive groupings in this country can be so easily co-opted onto a neo-liberal agenda through the wholesale capture of our human rights through a liberal discourse.This liberal discourse are the parameters through which funding flows to NGO’s and the mostsuccessful ones are those who best meet the development agenda of their funders, or at least donot directly challenge it. Not wanting to tar the entire NGO sector with the same brush, since manyNGOs who are recipients of international donor funding have done excellent and progressive work inthis country, but it is particularly with advocacy groups such as R2K, who position themselves as“civil society”, that the situation goes awry.This ennobling position of civil society actually sidesteps the determinative constituents of civilsociety, namely private property relations and the capitalist market. The question is, what enablesthis civil society to be rid of its conflicting class elements and commit itself to a common good? Thepoint is that the hodge-podge collection of individuals and groupings in the R2K have disengagedthemselves from the structural realities of civil society as they converge around the narrowprotection of individual rights in relation to POSIB. The utility of course in doing this is that it allowsthem to make moral claims to democracy and justice that is disconnected from political economicrelations of capitalist expansion.The porous and weak state regulation regime around information which R2K is calling for, is in syncwith the neo-liberal pressures for a weakened state. Moreover, the virtually universal non-confidential nature of any government information, even at local level, that R2K proposes will be acrowning jewel in the neo-liberal project in this country. It will effectively hamper the government atany level from engaging around controversial discussions, proposals, negotiations or policy positionsfor fear that it will be scuppered by the very powerful outside interests who are ready to shoot downanything put forward by the government. The point is, confidentiality extends a level of agency toour government that is sorely needed at a time when we as nation should be thinking creatively andoutside the heavy boundaries of a neo-liberal paradigm about our development and social justice. Itis also an agency that is genuinely feared by neo-liberal forces.Is it really possible, as R2K is demanding, that outside the security sector, there can be nothingsecret and confidential? I can’t give examples of what could or should be confidential, but I do agreethat it should be narrowly defined and there should be strict procedures for classifying. The Billmakes provision for this. I can just imagine that in locations such as the Office of the President,Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, highly confidential matters do transpire from time to time. Ina short while, our government will be putting out a R3-trillion tender for nuclear powerinfrastructure. Very powerful private forces, along with foreign governments, will be vying for this.Dirty tricks will be par for course in such a process. Is the government not supposed to have recoursefor confidentiality in a process such as this?
  • 4. By standing on a pedestal of liberal, self-righteous principles well within the parameters of theirfunders, R2K may well feel proud that for the least, it is pushing the envelope with respect tofreedom in this country. But making the government out to be unreasonable, dictatorial anddismissive of public input, when deep down you know that what you are demanding isunreasonable, is not pushing the envelope but devious obfuscation. Your well-financed resourcesare then used to whip up emotions of grassroots organisations to further put forward theseunreasonable demands to government.R2K’s failure to recognise a political economy underlying access to information means it has alsointernalised and repeated the simplified tales of corruption in this country, while being blind to theneo-liberal shackles embedded in these tales. The upshot of these tales is that people, closelyconnected to government officials, are enriching themselves through tenders and contracts. Thehypocrisy of course is that we are living in a capitalist society, where people are meant to enrichthemselves and get wealthier. Clearly, it is not about the wealth, but the people who are gettingrich. And it is not the money that’s at issue, but the social power and clout that accrues to anemerging elite. I do not wish to belittle the malaise of corruption that run through all governmentsin the world, but as it is now the values and judgements about corruption in our country appearmore as sinister attempts to trip up and stall development, and also a shift in service providers, thanit is actually to aid development and strengthen our government’s legitimacy to lead in this process.The POSIB is a brilliant piece of legislation that indeed strikes a balance between the public’s right toknow, and the need for confidentiality to facilitate greater government agency in governance. Thequestion of a wholesale public interest override (there is a limited override in the Bill already) is arather cynical scheme to continue the mission of delegitimizing the state’s interest in its citizens. Themanner in which R2K has subverted and corrupted the public interest in mobilizing around itsdemands might be proof enough that the Bill will be seriously flawed if it includes such a provision.But it will be an unfair knee-jerk reaction to R2K to suggest this, since this aspect of the Bill is thepoint around which COSATU has made representations. Here is required a more measuredappreciation of the demand being put forward, and COSATU itself has courageously shown its wiseleadership of its working class constituency by keeping well away from R2K.