South Africa: the future ain’t what it used to be

There are very few spectacle sadder than watching a political movement which has worked for freedom become corrupted to the point where that same movement starts closing freedom down.

Today the South African parliament, dominated by the ANC, passed by a large majority a media law which will restrict and constrain independent journalism in that country. Indeed, the law seems designed to squeeze, chill or eliminate independent reporting. The state is going to be accountable to the state.

A few years ago, I sat at a table at a conference in Cape Town with Jacob Zuma, the lunchtime speaker. At the time he was widely tipped to become president and duly did. Zuma’s speech was platitudinous and he avoided almost all the questions on the media. At the time he was taking the truly unusual step of suing a cartoonist. But despite the discretion of his words, Zuma’s loathing of the media was plain to see: his body language and flinty stare conveyed eloquent disgust for the privileges and airs of journalists. I assume that he is savouring his revenge.

There are no doubt problems in the conduct of South Africa’s media. Given what we’re hearing at the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking, it’s hardly the moment to be throwing stones from London. But – briefly to state the obvious – the answer to misconduct or excess by reporters and editors is not licensing and control by the state. This is not an exotic, “colonial” or particularly new idea and it is well expressed by many prominent South Africans of all stripes.

There’s no sign that Zuma or the ANC cares a fig for South Africa’s international reputation, but no one in the South African parliament should be surprised when their country slips down the global freedom indexes. Those opposing the new law have included the Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu and the literature laureate Nadine Gordimer; Nelson Mandela expressed reservations. As Tutu said, it was “insulting” for South Africans to stomach such legislation. Oh, what bright hopes there once were for that country.



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