Information Apartheid

CAPE TOWN – Accurate information is the oxygen that keeps democracy breathing. It is the key to ensuring a government’s probity, and to monitoring its relations with the large corporations that drive modern economies. Without accurate information, a country’s citizens are at the mercy of whatever potentially corrupt group happens to be controlling public agencies and making and enforcing the law.

Millions of South Africans suffered the consequences of a lack of information – and considerable disinformation – during the secretive apartheid era. But the country learned from that experience. South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution guarantees the right to public-sector information and, in many cases, private business information as well. South Africa adopted a freedom of information law in 2000, five years before the United Kingdom did.

Now, however, the right to information in South Africa is in jeopardy. In late November, the parliament’s lower house, led by the majority African National Congress (ANC), overwhelmingly approved a new law – the “Protection of State Information Bill” – whose adoption would shield the country’s most-powerful political and business elites from public scrutiny. South Africa’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer has likened the bill to apartheid legislation.

Fortunately, the proposed secrecy bill has not yet been enacted. It must still be approved by the parliament’s upper house, which is expected to vote on it in early 2012. But President Jacob Zuma, who also heads the ANC, appears willing to sign the bill into law.