The bitter triumph of small minds

20 November 2011 - 04:43 By Sunday Times Editorial

Sunday Times Editorial: ON Wednesday, our parliament will vote to remove from South Africans a vital freedom. For 17 years we have had the right to access government information in one of the world's most progressive constitutional democracies.

There have been times when the publication of sensitive information has been done in the public interest. The leaking of evidence in the form of wire-tapped phone calls between government officials demonstrated that the prosecution of President Jacob Zuma was politically motivated.

The airing of this information played no small part in Zuma's remarkable political comeback, which resulted in him rising to the highest office in the land.

From Wednesday, the South African public will be deprived of the vital oxygen of free information.

The Minister of Intelligence, Siyabonga Cwele, has rejected appeals by editors, professors, vice-chancellors, writers, businessmen and trade unionists for the inclusion of a public interest defence in the bill.

His arrogant refusal to listen to society is breathtaking.

Is it motivated by a desire to keep a lid on reporting on his intelligence agencies, which have shown themselves to be weak, divided and factional organisations that act as the agents of politicians rather than the country?

Is it motivated by a chauvinistic desire to demonstrate dominance?

Or is he simply ignorant of the high price a democracy pays for restricting the freedom of its citizens?

Cwele's explanation - that "foreign agents" are behind criticism of the bill - reveals a paranoid mind that should be kept away from the levers of power.

These are the sorts of utterances which Robert Mugabe has made as he has steadily eroded the freedoms of his people.

The DA will vote against the bill on Wednesday. According to MP Dene Smuts, "offences, especially of possession and disclosure, and especially in respect of the intelligence services, offend against the right to receive and impart information".

She is joined in opposition by Cosatu, which says the new draft of the bill leaves its concerns "largely unaddressed".

The voices of the official opposition, of the country's largest trade union, of media practitioners of every stripe, of business and of academia have not persuaded Cwele of the error of his ways.

Instead, they have inspired him to reveal his true state of mind - that of a paranoid powermonger who does not understand how a democracy works.

If our parliament votes this bill into law on Wednesday, mark the day. It will signal the moment small minds obsessed with power triumphed over freedom.