Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


Absolute power corrupts SA’s shining Constitution
Peter van der Merwe
Published: 01-NOV-06

When it was unveiled to the World back in 1996, South Africa’s Constitution was a thing of rare beauty. It entrenched equal rights for all before the law, swept discrimination into the trashcan of history and promised a government that led with openness and integrity.

Sadly, it did not reckon with the most insidious of foes: politicians. Indeed, on a continent which has hardly distinguished itself through the quality of its political leadership over the years, South Africa’s politicians are proving to be a particularly rapacious, self-serving and morally bankrupt bunch.

By the time you read this, Parliament will have voted on a piece of legislation which threatens one of the very cornerstones of a free and democratic society: media freedom. This little gem, called the Films and Publications Amendment Bill, could have been culled directly from the Robert Mugabe handbook of democracy.

Amongst other things, it will forbid the distribution of news and analysis about topics like sexual activity, propaganda for war, the incitement of violence and hate speech.

Instead, three-person teams of censors will summarily pass their pitiful judgement on what should be banned outright, what should be approved for limited circulation and what can be freely published. The existing right to be heard by the panel is to be abolished. Along with it goes the limited right of appeal to the courts against censorship.

This is chillingly Stalinist stuff from a government that was still fighting for liberation from oppression 20 years ago.

If the draft legislation is approved by the tiny minds that populate the ruling party benches in Parliament, the only hope for South African citizens and media will be the Constitutional Court, which will hopefully end this farce. Thankfully, the Court has generally proved to be a rare bastion of sanity in a quagmire of legal lunacy, but that’s not the point.

This ill-advised piece of legislation has widely been slated as unconstitutional and unworkable, so why it has even got this far is beyond the most one-eyed of political commentators.

The government lackeys are trying to present the legislation as key part of the war against child pornography. This is patently ridiculous. The protection of children is already more than adequately catered for in another piece of legislation that is currently oozing its way through the parliamentary mire.

What the legislation would do is make it illegal to report on such issues as former deputy president Jacob Zuma’s astonishing outburst against gay marriage — not only does this mention hatred of an identifiable group (gay people), but could also be interpreted as incitement to violence.

Zuma, for one, will not be objecting to the legislation. It may even serve him well, as it could help him stop pesky cartoonists and commentators for lampooning his bizarre sexual norms (according to Zuma, having a shower after unprotected sex protects one against HIV).

What’s more, his disparaging views on same-sex unions may well be borne out by Parliament, who just happen to be voting on a bill on gay marriage at the same time as the bill on media freedom. Mere coincidence? No such thing. How convenient it is that the predictable uproar over the right of two people to spend their lives together should completely overshadow the government’s subversive attempt to erode the rights of the people they are supposed to work for.

Take heed, dear readers, of the vast chasms that threaten to rip the ruling party apart. Of the ludicrous self-aggrandisement that prompts our leaders to spend hundreds of millions of rand protecting themselves against imaginary enemies while the people live in shacks. Of the massive corruption that takes place in the highest halls of power. For you may soon not be able to read about them anymore.

And then, as the forces of stupidity dance a jig on the ashes of our Constitution, we will be left with one comforting thought: how wonderful it is to be in Africa.

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