Crippled and cowering, the South African government is shifting its attention onto the country’s media after essentially provoking then losing the devastating public service strikes.
South Africa’s problem at the moment is that it’s exhausted. Can hardly blame it. The current political framework is less than 16 years old, it keeps chugging along with an economy about 20 times bigger than all the rest of the countries of Africa combined, the divisions between its rich and poor get larger, and a private capitalist economy keeps fighting with socialist leaders.
Everyone on all sides had hoped that a successful performance of the World Cup would somehow have made roses bloom and smog go away. To be sure, an unsuccessful performance would have been dire, and kudus to the government for taking the dare.
But attention to the World Cup was a distraction. Apartheid was the ace capitalist tool. By sequestering rights and setting boundaries among populations, markets were more easily defined then exploited. Wealth was much more easily created, albeit by excluding the majority.
So this is to be sure an incredibly daunting situation, now that the majority is in power, even while the majority knows it can’t just divide the existing wealth without so diluting the economy that it immediately evaporates into the African thin air.
So it’s understandable that this society wants to retire to bed with a plaster.
But a much more serious distraction than the World Cup is now besetting this enervated society.
Frankly, I think press freedom is overrated, today. Even in societies with thousands of years of censorship, like China, the news gets out. You simply can’t stop every cell phone, iPad and their partner electrons from zapping around.
Don’t get me wrong. When the battle lines are drawn, I fall squarely with the blobbers. (Sorry, is that blogger or blabber?) I’m just trying to point out that… it’s a distraction.
The proposed “Protection of Information Bill” has not yet passed South Africa’s parliament. It is a bill – with similarities to Kenya’s press control bill passed last year – that in its purest form would punish lying or revealing government secrets.
Of course, that’s the problem. One person’s lie is another’s truth. One person’s secret is another person’s redemption. This is not to say a lie is a truth, or that governments don’t have rights to secrets, or vice versa, just that there are a lot of malicious and ignorant people out there who believe lies and would misuse secrets.
And protection of their right to be stupid seems inseparable from pure freedom. And so it is.
South African leaders have been so quirky and so beleaguered by scandals that it’s quite clear that the law is as much intended to stop the whistle-blowing as it is to keep a fragile society from being rocked apart by lies or taken down by being stripped buck naked.
And so the fight begins anew with this session of Parliament. The original legislation has been softened, a “tribunal” of mediation proposed to define the parameters when previously it was the government itself, but Cry Freedom has lost its resonance.
It would be a mistake to pass this bill. And it may pass because the real problems besetting this ailing country seem insoluble, whereas controlling the press seems so much easier. Passing it is neither going to end press freedom in South Africa or stop journalists from finding out who Jacob Zuma’s next wife is.
South Africa didn’t fare very well in the actual World Cup matches. But it pulled off the event just fine.