Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Letter from Joburg, November 8, 2010

The Struggle for Democracy all Over Again



Remember the South African miracle? The event that peacefully negotiated, for the most part, the end of the apartheid system, and the hope it conveyed to people not only in African predatory states, but in so many other parts of the world as well? Yes, dictatorship, even of the most vicious kind, could be dismantled peacefully; people could gain both rights and dignity and plan a better future for their kids. This began almost 20 years ago.

Remember TV’s incredible bird’s-eye views of people standing in miles-long lines to vote? Remember Mandela with his awe-inspiring gravitas undiminished by TV lights, bringing a new humanity to our living rooms? Remember our admiration for the South Africans hammering out what was clearly the most progressive constitution in the world?

I am not going to tell you that this is all gone, because it is not. But even if it seems to have gotten reinvigorated, democracy here, like any new democracy, whether in Eastern Europe, Latin America, or anywhere else, is still fragile, and today it faces a major test.

Ironically there is a well-advanced effort by the ANC government to introduce a new piece of legislation that would dramatically restrict media freedom, and that, in an uncanny echo of Orwellian doublespeak, has been given the name Protection of Information Bill. The bill endows the ruling party with the power to decide what information is “unfit” for consumption by the larger public. This launch of censorship, which for many reeks of the apartheid era, is effectively designed to stop any state information that could be classified as harmful to the national interest,, which, as both media and public know, includes potentially embarrassing information about both past and present.

If one reads the proposed bill it becomes clear that there is hardly anything in South Africa that could not be defined in terms of national interest. Moreover it is up to politicians to decide what should be defined as a national secret. This legislative initiative is coupled with a newly proposed Media Appeals Tribunal to strengthen media freedom and accountability,, which recommends draconian penalties: e.g., from 3 to 25 years for those from the media who act against the protection of information.,

South African democracy may be young and fragile, but luckily it has a robustly refreshed civil society and a thick layer of moral authorities who speak out against the return of 1984.,

The Nobel Prize laureate, author Nadine Gordimer, a political activist whose books were banned under the apartheid regime, and Andre Brink, well-known South African novelist, have written a letter protesting these developments, now also signed by many other writers and intellectuals. In an interview for the well-regarded Mail and Guardian, Gordimer said, “People died in the freedom struggle and to think that having gained freedom at such a cost, it is now indeed threatened again, If the work and the freedom of the writer are in jeopardy, the freedom of every reader in South Africa is too.,

Civil society here is also expressed in its countrywide Right to Know, campaign. I’ll stop right here, but please see these pictures from a recent march in Joburg that went from Witwatersrand University to the Constitutional Court. It was to be a silent march, but in the end it was a fitting combination of various forms of protest ‘ songs, the high-stepping toi-toi, creatively sardonic buttons and t-shirts, placards with demands like STOP THE RETURN TO APARTHEID-ERA SECRECY, and lips silenced by masking tape.


There is one white button in particular which appealed to me and I’ll bring back to New York, in case it comes in handy in the new political climate.

Take a careful look, and discover some friends in the crowd,

Greetings, Elzbieta

For more photos by Elzbieta Matynia please visit our Facebook gallery.

Respond or comment on this piece on Deliberately Considered .


The New School for Social Research
6 East 16th St., Rm 921, NY, NY 10003
212-229-5100 ext. 3136

Elzbieta Matynia, Director
212-229-5580 ext. 3137

Lala Pop, Program Manager,
PhD Student, Politics
212-229-5100 ext. 3136

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