A version of this article appeared in the Weekend Argus on 1 September 2013.
The Right2Know has caused heavyweight politicians to fume, it has reenergised civil society and has helped change the law. Not bad for a toddler. Today, the campaign celebrates its third birthday today (August 31). Shireen Mukadam, a former R2K activist, reflects on the campaign’s birth, its successes and failures and asks where to now?
Charlie Chaplin was there. So were two ex-cabinet ministers and a cartoonist being sued by the president. An imam rubbed shoulders with a rabbi, who walked arm-in-arm with a priest. A local band who made Shakira famous was there, along with about 2000 other people who marched against the Secrecy Bill. Vuvuzelas trumpeted. Some of the protesters had duct tape across their mouths, some wore masks of Siyabonga Cwele – the minister who was threatening to take our voice away
“Let the truth be told,” someone shouted.
“Stop the Secrecy Bill,” a marcher demanded.
“Jou ma se Bill,” read a poster.
“Where is the Bill?” sang a resident and then suggested: “The Bill is in the bin. Who put it there? The people put it there.”
I was part of Right2Know’s first march to Parliament in October 2010. I had just returned home, after two years studying abroad. Without any plans up my sleeve, and oblivious to the latest political developments (or threats) in my country, all I knew was I wanted to work here, to be more connected to what was happening. I wanted to be involved.
I didn’t know it at the time but the Right2Know campaign would provide the perfect opportunity.
I joined the campaign as national administrator in September 2010. The Right2Know was a newborn. Think nappies, sleepless nights, teething tantrums – and we were like inexperienced parents.
“In some respects we had to run before we could walk,” said Mark Weinberg, the R2K national co-ordinator.
But we were marching before we had mastered running. A handful of committed volunteers (who knew very little about the logistics involved) organised the campaign’s first national march to Parliament.
For Stefaans Brummer, of the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism, this march marked one of the campaign’s turning points.
“We, and the powers that be alike, were surprised by the extent of support for R2K’s demands,” Brummer recalls.
Rewind two years. In 2008, when the ANC proposed the Protection of Information Bill, many journalists and human rights advocates heard alarm bells ringing, warning that South Africa under the ANC was slipping back into a hawkish culture of secrecy and unaccountability out of which the new democracy had led it less than two decades before.
The Bill was withdrawn in 2008 after an outcry, but reappeared in 2010 in a version even worse, according to Brummer, than the one it replaced.
Organisations and individuals, who had submitted dissenting representations to Parliament during public hearings in July, soon realised that they had common concerns – and needed to make common cause.
“Within two or three get-togethers we thrashed out a set of shared ideals and demands. The organisational identity – the name, the knotted-vuvuzela symbol and the battle cry – Let the truth be told. Stop the Secrecy Bill! – came quite organically,” he explained.
R2K was established as a coalition of organisations and people opposed to the Secrecy Bill. It was a short-term initiative with a single focus. “We never imagined how fraught and drawn-out the process would become, how much traction we would gain, and how much R2K would grow as an organisation in the process,” said Brummer.
A common thread throughout the past three years is that people have always been at the heart of the campaign. It’s taken creativity, commitment, passion, skills and a (very large) dose of humour to sit through the countless hours of ad hoc committee meetings in Parliament.
Hennie van Vuuren, one of R2K’s founders, remembers a day in Parliament when Protection of State Information Bill Adhoc Committee chairman Cecil Burgess told R2K activists they were not welcome to share the vetkoek snacks with the MPs during the hours and hours of committee deliberations, earning him the nickname Vetkoek Burgess.
A cornerstone of the campaign has been its ability to translate legalese into bread-and-butter issues for communities. According to constitutional lawyer and political analyst Richard Calland “it has joined the dots between secrecy, government accountability – or lack of it – and service delivery and the day-to-day concerns of people throughout South Africa. In this sense, it has ‘popularised’ the principle of transparency and the right of access to information that is enshrined in our constitution.”
“It was easy to link the secrecy bill to community struggles,” said Nkwame Cedile, R2K Western Cape Organiser for the past three years. “Issues around the Secrecy Bill affect communities directly.”
Cedile has been organising workshops in townships throughout the province to raise awareness about the Bill’s practical implications, in collaboration with more established organisations such as the Open Democracy Advice Centre and the Legal Resources Centre. He said communities were concerned about the government’s secrecy and that many of the service delivery protests around the country have flowed from government attempts to keep citizens in the dark as to its real intentions.
“For communities living in Blikkiesdorp’s ‘temporary housing, the community developed Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) applications demanding access to information,” Cedile said. “They want to know how long is ‘ temporary’?”.
Khaya Xintolo, of Mandela Park Backyarders who was elected to the R2K provincial working group, said the R2K has helped his community in Khayelitsha to know what they need to do to get information.
For Matilda Groepe, of the Blikkiesdorp Concerned Citizens, the campaign is about “empowerment through information”.
The ANC didn’t anticipate the backlash that met its Secrecy Bill. There was an outpouring of outrage – and not only from the media. Trade unions, businesses, politicians and even prominent ANC members realised the consequences of the information clampdown. These disparate forces made sure the Bill wasn’t going to be pushed through.
The ANC buckled – and the Bill that was eventually passed in April was a diluted version of the original.
But it wasn’t a complete victory for R2K.
Jane Duncan, Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society of Rhodes University who is also a member of the R2K national working group, said: “There are still many flaws that could see people being jailed for excessively long periods of time simply for possessing or revealing information that is in the public interest.”
So the Bill isn’t in the bin. It’s awaiting the signature of President Jacob Zuma that will turn it into an Act. And when he does R2K and its allies have vowed to take the fight to the Constitutional Court if necessary.
R2k has no intention of disappearing. Three years later, the campaign is more relevant now than ever. Ronnie Kasrils, former minister of intelligence who was at the R2K’s march with his comrade, the late Kader Asmal said some of the current threats to the free flow of information in South Africa included “a growing culture of secrecy stemming from government and ruling party paranoia and security order institutions inclined to serve corrupt political and personal agendas rather than the Constitution and Bill of Rights”.
The R2K is up for the challenge. The campaign has matured and has grown to embrace more than the Secrecy Bill. It now takes on issues of secrecy; access to information; blowing the whistle; media freedom and diversity; and the right to communicate.
Weinberg explained that the Bill was merely a symptom of a growing authoritarianism in SA and that R2K would keep its doors open as long as elements in the government and private sector were committed to keeping secrets. “Until everyone has the right to communicate freely, the Right2Know Campaign will continue to grow,” he said.
R2K’s latest activities:
R2K’s most recent initiatives include:
- ongoing protests at National Key Points around the country
- calling on Zuma not to sign the Secrecy Bill
- vula ma connexion campaign- taking on cell phone monopolies to make access to telecommunications a human rights and social justice issue
- exploring an Open Data project – in addition to the use of PAIA, this initiative will call for the proactive release of existing information for the benefit of communities
Messages on the occasion of R2K’s third birthday from:
Ronnie Kasrils, former Minister of Intelligence
“Congratulations to the R2K for talking truth to power; for not being afraid to be labelled agents of foreign powers; for standing up in support of our constitutional rights; for creating a platform in defence of our hard won democratic rights.
Keep up the good fight; do not be afraid or intimidated; remember we must educate our rulers and their supporters as well as the public.”
“Huge congratulations for focusing the nation’s attention on this Bill and changing the nation’s understanding on what this Bill actually is and for not letting up and keeping up the pressure.”
Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town:
“I am proud to have been associated with the Right to Know campaign from their earliest days. I would like to offer my encouragement to them just to persevere in all they do, and not become downhearted by setbacks.”
Patricia de Lille, mayor of City of Cape Town:
“The R2K campaign has been a welcome and increasingly necessary addition to South Africa’s civil society organisations. Keep fighting the good fight. It is only when our leaders, myself included, are held accountable, that we know that democracy, that was so hard fought and won, is flourishing.”
Mpumelelo Mkhabela, chair of Sanef:
“R2K has lived up to their name. The joint public protests we held with them in the fight against the so-called Secrecy Bill were instrumental in shaping the discourse about the necessity for transparency in the business of a democratic South African state.”
Jackson Mthembu, ANC national spokesman:
“I am not with them. I am not their spokesperson. I stand for the ANC.”
Cecil Burgess, MP and former Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Protection of State Information Bill:
“Kindly note Mr Burgess has no comment”.
A version of this article appeared in the Weekend Argus on 1 September 2013.