So, I fly up to Jo’burg to take part in celebrations for Nobel-laureate Nadine Gordimer’s 88th birthday. The taxi-driver, who took me and the group of writers I was with, was pulled over and extorted in central Jo’burg. Having an enormous man with muscles rippling up the back of his shaved head climb into the front of your mini-bus and tells your driver to get out and hand over cash does that to one. The driver, a sensible and experienced man, did so at once. He peeled off notes three times before Muscle Head let us go. It made me feel dirty, knowing that it is so easy to be rolled over and ripped off.
But be that as it may, last Friday was the day the Mail & Guardian did the time warp. They blacked out of a story about arms, secrets and lies that they had been prevented from publishing. The reason? The journalists were threatened with arrest for publishing a story that was clearly, fairly and squarely in the public interest. The censored pages were an instant flashback to the 1980s when censorship by a vicious and paranoid state, aware that power was slipping from its bloodied hands, reached a feverish pitch.
The laws governing freedom of expression and the press were draconian then. They were designed to silence the public and to keep secret what officials were doing. That was all swept aside in the euphoria of the early nineties, and freedom of expression – the right to the truth, I suppose – was enshrined in the constitution. We all should have lived happily ever after but there was to be a twist in the ending of this tale.
It was called The Arms Deal. Despite a lot of complicated detail, the story is mind-numbingly simple in essence. Senior party and government fleeced a trusting and hopeful nation by ordering obsolete, unnecessary weapons at inflated prices. Kickbacks from arms manufacturers were brokered and money flowed into Swiss bank accounts. It has felt a bit crazy for a while. They know they did it. We know they did it. They know we know they did it. We know they know we know they did it…
It’s enough already because the arms deal, a dark, vampiric twin has shadowed South Africa’s democracy since it was brokered. The arms deal, I’ve heard it rumoured, as far back as 1992. This venal deal was struck between nasty businessmen representing European governments and arms manufacturers, and the revolutionary wideboys whom they’d assiduously courted with the single malt and Cuban cigars.
It’s almost twenty years that this malignant party-spoiler has lurked. Most of us – the fleeced – wished that they – the blustering fleecers – would go away. That they would go to jail without passing Go, without collecting more money. That was too much to ask, as became clear after Shabir Shaik went to jail briefly on behalf of everyone. Those within government and the prosecuting authorities who worked to prosecute those involved were sidelined or silenced.
The garments of ethics and trust are fragile. The high temperature wash required for money laundering shrunk the rainbow-nation garments we all invested in. They no longer stretched over the plump, governmental bellies. Hubris, however, has seen the politicians clinging to power, clogging the arteries of public life.
There have been frantic fig leaves of spin, but all of us looking at this tawdry spectacle; we can see that the emperor is naked. So are many of the courtiers, the jesters, the pageboys, the lords and ladies in waiting. And after such a long, sustained journey on the gravy train, they are not looking good.
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and from where I am looking it is not pretty. It is also too late for a cover-up. No amount of nipping and tucking of the truth can hide the extant of the rot. It is this knowledge that is behind the ANC’s sustained attempts to push through the Protection of Information Bill, the ‘Secrecy Bill’, through parliament. This legislation, a toxic mixture of the dystopian visions of Kafka and Orwell, will hide naked greed and corruption under a cloak of secrecy and ‘classified’ information. It will criminalise those bring governmental wrongdoing, corruption or plain ineptitude to the public’s attention.
There will be no recourse. This legislation does not even have the flimsy protection of a ‘public interest’ clause to protect the body politic. The Secrecy Bill is the legislative equivalent of a date rape – an intimate assault on a trusting public by a democratically elected government.