If we want to defend freedom, we should be able to tell the difference between the real threats which face it and those which some of us invent.
One problem about a climate in which denouncing the government has become the key to respectability is that it is difficult to tell the difference between those who are expressing prejudice and those who are warning of real dangers. A report by the watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch is in the second group – it reminds us that there are serious threats to our freedom.
One threat highlighted by the report is the Traditional Courts Bill, which has been discussed before in this column. Despite strong opposition from within the ANC, and by human rights groups, this bill has not been withdrawn and could become law. If it does, millions of people in rural areas may be forced to submit to the discipline of courts, which are likely to be used to impose the power of traditional leaders. Women would be particularly at risk of losing rights which the Constitution grants them.
Another is the use of violence by police. The Marikana shootings raised justifiable concerns about police using force against citizens who engage in peaceful protest. A commission of inquiry is, of course, investigating what happened at Marikana but the problem seems widespread. Even if the commission were to find that police were not to blame in that case, there are many others in which they might be using excessive force against protesters.
If we add to this the fact that police are sometimes allied to local power holders who do not like challenges to their authority, we should worry about the degree to which democracy is not being honoured in townships and shack settlements throughout the country.
This threat to our freedom is also linked to another danger discussed by the report – the draft Protection of State Information Bill.
Most commentary misunderstands this bill, claiming that it will curb media reporting on corruption, despite the fact that a section says that it cannot be used in that way. What the bill would do is give the security establishment more power to prevent society from knowing what they are doing. This could be used to hide from citizens police action, which protects the powerful rather than the people.
The real dangers which these measures pose tends to be lost in the constant scramble by better-off groups who are not in any danger to highlight “threats to freedom” which simply don’t exist.
An example is a recent furore over the de-registration by the government of 36000 NGOs. Reports, based on claims by some NGOs, created the impression that the government was cracking down on citizens’ organisations to make sure that they no longer challenged it. But the images which were conjured up, of a dictatorial government gagging organisations which dared to speak for the people, was supported by no evidence at all.
If NGOs are deregistered, the only effect is that they cannot access government money.
This is a problem for some organisations, but those which are most critical of the government have other funding sources and would be able to survive. So it is hard to see deregistration as a death blow to NGOs.
Also, the claim that deregistration was designed to close down NGOs because they took on the government was not backed by the evidence. Two of the NGOs had taken the government to court recently but you must be seriously addicted to conspiracy theories to believe that the government would act against 36000 organisation to get at only two. The obvious conclusion was that the two just happened to be on the list.
Almost immediately after reports of deregistration appeared in the media, the department reversed the decision and registered the NGOs again. A government which was trying to close down its opponents would not have given up after a few media reports.
So, an administrative decision by some officials, who were probably reacting to the organisations’ failure to meet some bureaucratic requirement, was overturned as soon as someone made a fuss. A silly decision by a government department was turned into an assault on freedom.
Some NGOs love nothing better than evidence that the government is determined to crush them. If this is the best they can do, they might have to resign themselves to not achieving the victimhood they seek.
There are many other examples of this sort of scare tactic – sadly for some journalists, the media remains free despite constant attempts to show that the government is gunning for it. So do the courts, despite claims that any government attempt to start a conversation on judges shows that it is about to replace them with party officials.
What is the key difference between the fake threats and the real ones? All the fake ones are raised by middle-class organisations and commentators determined to show that a majority government is set on imposing itself on the middle classes – journalists, NGO activists and the legal profession. All the real ones are directed at the poor and the marginalised who face real police action and real attempts to impose traditional rule on them.
The reason we hear so much about the fake ones and hardly anything about the real ones is that the NGOs and journalists and professionals have as much access as they want to the media, which shape the public debate. The poor have none and so they are ignored.
All democracies need people and organisations willing to defend freedom. But, if the only voices we hear in freedom’s defence are those of a hyper-sensitive middle class determined to see demons where none exist, then what is defended is not freedom but the fears of the few.
It is about time that we heard far more about the real threats to the freedom of the many rather than the fake ones conjured up by the endless anxiety of the few.
Written by: Steven Friedman
- Prof Steven Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and University of Johannesburg. This article was published on The New Age.