Monday 8 January 2018

"They ate dust."

Today marks the 116th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress (ANC) under the original name South African Native National Congress. Like any aspect of life, the history of the ANC is full of contradictions, with noble goals and atrocious antics and hope and despair and good and evil all wrapped into one black, green, and gold flag.

The party was founded to defend the rights of black South Africans and until the 1960s practiced non-violent resistance. Dark days tormented the divided country when the ANC turned to violence, which lasted three decades and saw some of the worst atrocities human beings can commit. The South African military responded with equal brutality, none worse than the Sharpeville Massacre that resulted in 69 deaths and 180 injured, according to official statistics. The apartheid government banned the ANC and designated it as a terrorist organization with some Western countries following suit. As in so many other places in the world, South Africa became a proxy battlefield for the Cold War, where the ANC was supported and funded by the USSR and the apartheid government was backed by Western powers until the fall of the Soviet Union made it impossible for the West to justify backing the racist regime any longer.

As expected, the ANC won the 1994 elections in a landslide. But governing and wanting the opportunity to govern are different animals. Fighting for rights is a noble goal, fueled by passion, the pursuit of justice, and a desire to change the world. Governing, however is an exercise in the mundane and is filled with the temptations that power brings. Let's face it. Governing can be BORING. One can be mired in the swamp of legalese and procedure, drowning in the problems of the people, such that one may intend to do something just so something - anything - is done. That often results in bad or unnecessary policy. Take internet policy, for example.

It's no secret that South Africa wants to play a leading role in shaping telecommunications policy and regulation in Africa, having supported the Constitution and Convention of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) and the Final Acts of the Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Across the continent, citizens are feeling the crushing blows that regimes are dealing to their digital rights, with 30 of 54 African countries violating internet freedom in 2016. The ANC, not content to let all the other regimes have all the fun, proposed its own inimical internet policy in 2015 then known as the Draft Online Regulation Policy of the Film and Publications Board and becoming the Film and Publications Amendment Bill [B 37-2015]. The draft bill was widely condemned by internet freedom experts in South Africa and across the globe, but the ANC-led government pushed forward anyway. The bill was amended in November 2017 and sits before committee in 2018. We shall see what happens.

The Films and Publications law was originally passed after the fall of the apartheid regime with the intent to prevent the spread of propaganda in films and publications that advocated hatred and violence based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. When trying to rebuild a state after decades of such violence, sometimes censorship is necessary for stability. But it was never meant to be expanded to cover the day-to-day communications of South African citizens. Of course, no one could have anticipated the way we use the internet today. This bill would give the government sweeping powers to control content on the internet, where every person has the ability to publish his thoughts and ideas or lack thereof. All it takes is one corrupt, power-hungry official to use the law to curb opposition speech. Like this blog post, for example.

Former state security minister David Malobo (and current energy minister after a round of musical chairs) justified online content regulation by citing "fake news" and scams as evidence of a need for tighter control of the internet. His replacement, Bonjani Bongo, is busy bribing officials and hasn't said much about it. But corruption in the ANC is nothing new. In fact, the ANC became so corrupt and incompetent that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, sometimes described as the conscience of South Africa, wrote in 2013 that he would not vote for it, that it was "worse than the apartheid government." Tutu has been a vocal critic of the ANC for a while - in 2009 he condemned the greed and corruption that pervaded it, and in 2011, after the ANC-led government failed to give the Dalai Lama a visa, he said, "We will pray as we prayed for the downfall of apartheid government, we will pray for downfall of a government that represents us."

A fish rots from the head down, and that fish started to rot years ago. That a bill continued to progress through the legislative system despite the public's disapproval leaves only the question, Cui bono? It certainly isn't the people.

The ANC was good once. Ousting President Jacob Zuma as leader was a good start to reforming the party. Listening to the people would be another big step in the right direction. Putting human rights - the purpose of the party's founding - at the forefront of legislation is another big step. Adapting to the changing times is the only way to survive, and internet freedom has to be a part of that. A generation of digital natives has come of age and are ready to govern. But they need to have the freedom to do so.

"The Nationalists had a huge majority. They ate dust," Tutu once said while shaking his finger. Let that be a lesson from which we all can learn.

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