Public forum, online debate: South Africa’s new ‘Secrecy Bill’ and protection of state information

As I post this, online debates rage about the decision made in Friday’s Mail & Guardian (one of South Africa’s leading national papers)  to run a censored article – with content blacked out – that criticised Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, under threat of prosecution on the terms of the controversial Protection of State Information Bill (currently being debated, particularly with reference to rights pertaining to and definitions of ‘public information’, with a view to being passed asap). In this particular context, the censored pages serve both as chilling reminder and potential forewarning (should the Bill go ahead in its current form), a decision that raises a deeply provocative and politicised spectre.

I find myself drawn back to the gravity of debates over Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s recent re-exploration (15 August 2011) of the possibility of a ‘wealth tax’  for white South Africans, 1% to be levied against all whites, as those who “all benefited from apartheid”. This call is an echo made earlier by Tutu as a potentially reconciliatory outcome in the glare of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (thirteen years ago, back in 1998): “It could be quite piffling, maybe one percent of their stock exchange holdings. It’s nothing. But it could have helped… maybe building new homes, and that would have been an extraordinary symbol of their readiness,” he reiterated in an interview with the Cape Argus this year (n.b. this is a direct quote – the grammar of it is amazing: but is it too soon to talk of tenses?).

Some positions regarding what have become known as the South African “whiteness debates” were articulated in that most privately public of forums, Facebook – by friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends…

In these, often painful and sensitive, deeply personal and difficult articulations, a paper written by Samantha Vice, an academic at Rhodes University, ‘How do I live in this strange place?’ (2010), was often referenced, sometimes cited. Vice, in this paper, advocated humility and silence for whites, so that they may begin and continue to bear the moral burden of whiteness and its privilege in South Africa responsibly, ethically; further, she suggested that white people feel and cultivate shame and regret in order to inhabit a critical, thinking, respectful space regarding their current social and economic positions (see, the Journal of Social Philosophy 41 (3):323-342). In turn, in terms of inhabiting the public space, Vice’s paper was brought into view through an article in the Mail & Guardian (in English, July 1st this year) and Die Burger (in Afrikaans, in June) by Eusebius McKaiser, political commentator and an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics (Johannesburg). He took issue with Vice’s decision, as a white South African, to withdraw from the public, political sphere – to not take a place in the running of contemporary South Africa, but to consciously restrict the sphere to one in which she felt qualified to comment. Instead, McKaiser suggested that the ethical responsibility is to ensure that the ‘elephant in every South African room’ continues to be addressed, and be addressed across as wide a forum as possible. Online reaction to his article – overwhelmingly hostile, directed against both McKaiser’s and, primarily, Vice’s positions – attests to this availability. The Mail & Guardian have ‘hosted’ the ensuing debate, including McKaiser’s article and Vice’s response, among other voices; it can be read here: The podcast ‘Not in Black and White’, also available on that page, explores the debate from the perspective of the M&G literary festival.

‘Reverse’: this comes up often – ‘reverse racism’, ‘reverse apartheid’. Resoundingly, the ethics of witnessing press.

On the 8th March, the Sowetan ran a story on the white squatters of Coronation Park, Krugersdorp, queuing for RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) housing, having previously rejected these houses, the story runs, on racial grounds: “WHITE families who initially refused RDP houses in Mogale City because “blacks would rape their children” are now queuing to get them.” (see the full article here).

Around the same time,  a student from ‘The Literatures of Africa’ course (a third year UG course created and run by Steph Newell at Sussex that I co-taught with Shamira Meghani Spring/Summer this year) drew attention to some Reuters photojournalistic coverage, from 2010, of Coronation Park, now one of the most famous, internationally spotlit ‘informal settlements’ populated by impoverished Afrikaners. (The student had wanted to use the images as part of a seminar presentation on Marlene Van Niekerk’s novel, Triomf (1994), an extraordinary novel that portrays a white South African underclass, living on the ground of previous forced removals in the suburbs of Joburg, locked in a brutalised set of relationships and an apparently immovable, brutalising cycle of poverty in the run up to the democratic elections.)

There are 27 images on the site, ‘The Big Picture’, three of which are reproduced here, taken by an award-winning Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly, well worth a look.

This year’s online updates to this photojournalistic portrayal, illustrate how these images   continue to be projected and consumed – I am intrigued by what this framing does to their content
(compare Reuters slideshow ‘Poverty in America’ with Reuters slideshow ‘White Poverty in South Africa’ in the context of ‘global’ poverty; OR the peculiarly context-less, striking, or ‘winning’ images here: ‘Stunning award winning images’ (see thumbnail on the right) and/or ‘Still photography winners’).

As I type, it is Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel literature prize winner, who, in the international press – a report in the UK’s Telegraph, attacks the ANC’s decision to push the Protection of State Information Bill through parliament tomorrow.  The legislation of the Bill replaces an apartheid-era law and would punish anyone holding or disclosing classified material with jail terms of up to 25 years. For Gordimer, “the ANC is taking South Africa back to the suppression of the free expression of apartheid.” As the debates on the potential and/or necessity of the recuperation of whiteness coalesce in the South African press, I am drawn back (again) to the decision by the M&G to run censored content on a leading politician in a position of trust, the article that I began with. This decision by the M&G has led to comparisons with the now defunct News of the World and the phone-hacking scandal, suspicions being raised and aired over the legality of the M&G’s sources in, particularly, the context of arguments regarding the Protection of Information Bill and the weighing of state interests against transparency and freedom of information. For further, Nic Dawes, M&G Online’s editor in chief, defends the decision to censor in the M&G Online here, commented on and debated in the online comments section underneath.

And in the meantime, online comment is free (at this point, it is perhaps worth noting that the entire M&G’s ‘Books’ section has zero comments – period): comment is free, that is, as long as it remains in the bounds of acceptability, within rules as regulated and moderated by an ‘editorial team’, with the right for comment to be ‘terminated without prejudice’ (if racist, sexist or ‘stupid’): the M&G requests consideration of the fact that  ‘your words will remain on the internet for a very, very long time, if not forever’ (see ‘Comment Guidelines’, M&G Online).

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Categories: And Other Words...


5 replies

  1. I read your post about public forum and online debate and, of course, I am thinking about my old newspapers! I am sure there are loads of academic papers drawing comparisons between both forms of journalism and highlighting the impact of new technology in producing and spreading information. Darnton wrote; “I want to write an e-book!”. Not a book in the electronic format, he explains, but a book with many dimensions and links to the infinite of the world web – which is not possible in a ‘regular’, paper printed book. Blogs and online newspapers made a direct link with readers through the comments box. Before, in my old newspapers’ times, readers had to send their comments to an editor, who had the final decision to publish or censor them. And then, readers became authors; publishing a letter commenting on the past newspaper issue is enough for me to add them to my list of Lagosian intellectuals. I don’t think I could do the same with online news. But enough of rumbling! I actually wanted to point out that among all the differences between online and printed news, there is something very similar in both past and current journalism/readers comments dynamic: the guidelines on how to comment. It is astonishing how they are very similar, or still the same! =)

    • Really interesting article – thank you Katie! The public space for comment and debate online is also really interesting to me, and particularly how content can be re-posted and re-framed (as you show with the photographs here).

      This space is one I’m trying to analyse and map in order to think about the way books or authors might intervene in cultural memory. So for example I’m interested in the way that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival as reviewed in the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, was ‘re-appropriated’ and widely circulated in Nigeria though reposting on sites aggregating Nigerian news such as,,, and

  2. Following on from this… Here’s an article from today’s Observer in which Nadine Gordimer speaks out against the new secrecy legislation:


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