/ 29 October 2010

Food for a rethink

For months now we’ve been talking in conference rooms, hotels and ­government buildings about freedom of information and speech.

It has all been important and productive. We’ve articulated concerns about the Protection of Information Bill and the proposed media appeals tribunal and communicated those concerns to the elite practitioners of high politics — not least newspaper editors, civil society leaders, the ANC and the government.

Those engagements matter — careful reflection on these issues among those who have the power to implement change is absolutely necessary — but they are not sufficient, not by miles. Indeed, these limited exchanges and the pacts that sometimes flow from them, can work to exclude many of those most directly affected by bad laws.

The impact of last week’s Right2Know march to parliament, that saw thousands of South Africans come together to voice their opposition to The Secrecy Bill, reverberated loud and clear among the members of the the ad hoc committee on Protection of Information bill.

On Wednesday in Cape Town something rather different happened. The Right2Know coalition, with its more than 350 civil society member organisations, was able to mobilise a broad front of protesters against the Protection of Information Bill.

With religious, union and civil society leaders in the vanguard, and a raucous, albeit well-behaved phalanx of ordinary citizens swelling the ranks, we marched from District Six to Parliament. People from Khayelitsha living with HIV, unemployed people from Mannenberg, journalists, gender activists, students, a few rock stars and members of the much derided species, “Cape Liberal”, filled Buitenkant Street with joyous, defiant noise.

And here is the message from megaphones and ­vuvuzelas that really mattered: the Protection of Information Bill is bad for all of us and, despite our many deep divergences, when it comes to our rights we are one: freedom is not a gift voucher handed out by the government, redeemable for a limited time only, terms and conditions apply.

As the truck leading the procession parked outside Parliament, a special South African irony was evident. Inside Pravin Gordhan was campaigning for maximum transparency in budgets and in tender proceedings.

Outside we were doing much the same. And this is our hope: somewhere in between, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, whose law is an appalling threat to that transparency, was having a hard think.