There is a renewed focus on transparency in South Africa and around the globe. With local struggles continuing around the Secrecy Bill, and international efforts to trigger a ‘race to the top’ around open government through the Open Government partnership, there has never been more focus and attention on the transparency issues that are on the national, regional and international agenda.
In the face of the disaster of Marikana and mining sector strikes, government is aware that a new PR offensive is necessary to persuade the international community that all is well. International investors are not drinking the Kool-Aid however, and ratings agencies have downgraded South Africa as an investment destination, despite government assurances that all is well.
The President’s emotional defence of spending at Nkandla, his personal homestead, has not turned the tide of belief that something is being hidden, probably because his Ministers have invoked the National Key Points Act and the Protection of State Information Act, beloved of the Groot Krokodil, and others of his ilk, to prevent release of information. Labour ‘unrest’ grows – this apartheid euphemism disguises riots and burning of property in the farmlands of the Western Cape.
The response of government to this ongoing haemorrhage of political capital has been to call for insult laws, and to sue a major Sunday paper in an attempt to interdict them from releasing transcripts of the tapes that allegedly describe the NPA dropping corruption charges against Zuma.
The impact of all this is extraordinarily damaging for the rest of the continent, for Africa. Setting aside the impact on South Africans, we are particularly concerned about countries on the verge of introducing access to information laws, like Ghana, and those on the verge of repealing insult laws, like Liberia and Nigeria.
They look to South Africa, and those against change say “You see South Africa? See why we need these things? They are a democracy praised by the world, and yet they need to control these journalists, these opposition people.”
We become a leader in the worst possible way – a justification for tyranny, rather than an aspiration for democracy. We must consider our words beyond a narrow constituency in this country – the continent is watching. We will probably never see an insult law on the books – it is an empty threat in the face of the Bill of Rights. Others will not be so lucky.