The Kafkaesque Protection of Information Bill is about more than media freedom : It is an expression of authoritarianism lurking beneath a thin veneer of democracy. It is the latest legislative attempt to give far too much power to faceless bureaucrats, the Expropriation Bill and aspects of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill  being other recent examples.  Despite public rhetoric, and the apparent commitment to democracy by many politicians, there has been no seismic shift away from the authoritarianism of apartheid.

Racial and homeland legislation has been dismantled, and a  superb constitution enacted, but the structure of South African society has no changed dramatically. We are still among the world’s most unequal nations, and, for many, old mindsets remain. Political intolerance and destructive struggle within parties are rife. Ethnic chauvinism still rears its ugly head – including within political parties, and in attacks on foreigners.

Many in leadership positions project, through their trappings of power, an image of self-importance which is out of place in a modern democracy. There seems little doubt that political moves to ‘regulate’ the media are motivated by resentment of exposes about people in powerful positions (which is not to excuse sloppy and unethical journalism).  Election to high office brings public scrutiny and those who fear the heat should stay out of the political kitchen. Indeed, the autocratic tendencies of some politicians suggest that they fail understand that they owe their positions not only to the voters but to the taxpayers who fund them.

Powerlessness, and dependency on patronage, play a part in the failure of the majority to hold their government to account. Crucial factors promoting authoritarian conformity include the quality of most education, traditional
leadership, and violence.

The dearth in critical thinking is the product of poor
education. Apartheid education was not designed to produce questioning adults (including whites), but Bantu education was the cruellest blow inflicted on black people. During the dying days of apartheid, the situation deteriorated even further as schools became sites of struggle and attacks on learners. Those who made it to university were quick to latch on to Marxian rhetoric and slogans, but most ignored the master’s dictum that ‘we must be critical’. Had they, and those in exile, paid more attention to sociologist Max Weber they might not have made such a mess trying to transform the bureaucracies they inherited, especially the police. It is these extremely dysfunctional bureaucracies, with their high turnover of senior staff, that the drafters of this legislation intend to entrust with awesome powers of control over information.

Elements of democracy surrounding traditional leadership were stripped by colonial governments which used the institution as a means of controlling the dispossessed. Instead of confining their roles to ceremonial matters (as elsewhere in Africa) the present government has given these leaders too much power. While some do attempt to run their fiefdoms in a democratic manner, others rule by fear. The system itself is authoritarian.

Pervasive violence is another reason for excessive
conformity, especially in areas where policing remains atrocious. People fear
to speak out, and – as during the protest excesses of the 1980s – dare not
stand up to the bullies in their midst.  Violence, rather than democratic alternatives such as lobbying, remains the preferred method of dealing with problems, including in protest and political (intra and inter-party) issues.

The impression is that those supporting this legislation are
out of touch with reality. Ad hoc committee chairperson Cecil Burgess, for
example, seems to think that should bureaucrats classify information illegally
colleagues would report them .Does he not know that most graft goes unreported. With good reason, people fear the consequences, and many do not trust their lives to the police.

Similarly, Justice and Constitutional Development Minister
Jeff Radebe sees the bill as a product of democratic process, overlooking the
fact that relatively few people – those who are able to access it and read it –
are able to express their views on legislation. How many parliamentarians read and digest bills sufficiently well to cast their votes in an informed manner? How many parliamentarians, legislature members and councillors report back to their constituencies about legislation, and actively encourage public debate about it? Even literate people may find it difficult to keep up with the large volume of legislation before parliament.

If this government had the interests of democracy at heart
it would be facilitating access to information, and not trying to curtail it
even further. It is already difficult to obtain public interest information
from government departments, including the SAPS, Health and Land Affairs (which has failed to supply it even when Promotion of Access to Information forms have been submitted)

Have victims of oppression, including State law advisor
Enver Daniels, not learnt the lessons of recent history? They are lucky that
they, unlike so many thousands who died in the struggle for freedom, are still
alive. Many of those deaths could have been prevented had the apartheid regime not been so successful in misconstructing social reality through controls over the flow of information. If this bill is passed in its present form, and if nothing is done about the authoritarianism that has spawned it, the future of democracy in South Africa will be in danger.