South Africa's assault on freedom and property – should anyone in the rest of the world care?

The president should give a fuck?“Instead of standing aggressively behind the status quo, dressed in the cloak of the fourth estate, they need to talk more about responsibility, more about the importance of ethics, more about improvement in the standards of journalism in all respects. … The public interest means publication or non-publication guided by what is in the interest of the public as a whole, not what readers or an audience might find interesting or titillating.”

The words are a gauntlet thrown down before the media and against free speech as a whole. This is a nation that has shown determination to introduce Chinese-style Internet screening and demanding that ISPs censor content.

Except, these words weren’t spoken in South Africa. They are from Australia and were presented by former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Compare them to the following. Malusi Gigaba, a South African deputy minister, has demanded “fast-tracking the passage of a yet-to-be-drafted law that will compel Internet service providers to filter content provided to users to ensure it does not contain any pornography.”

South African politicians aren’t alone in voicing the idea that free speech has limits. They’re also not alone in wanting government to take a greater stake in economic activity.

The G20 group of major economies has displaced the G8 as the world’s formative global talkshop. A grouping that contained 75% democratic and free countries has been replaced by one containing only 60%. This is part of the rebalancing of the global economy, in which the US and EU have to recognise their shrinking dominance of world affairs.

With that shift comes doubt.

When bad guys win we doubt ourselves

At the beginning of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union’s apparent dominance of space and the launch of the Sputnik, Western leaders seriously worried that the Communist model would win. Doubt led to assault on social and economic freedom. McCarthyism was only one of the brutal expressions of those fears.

In the end it turned out that you can’t achieve innovation and advancement without both social and economic liberty.

Now we have the state-led growth of China as a seeming counterpoint to liberal capitalism. Again, governments around the world are losing confidence in their own systems and are reviving failed industrial policies that most had hoped were dead and buried.

The language used to undermine these social and economic freedoms are the same in “liberal” societies like the US, EU and Australia as they are in China, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

We are told that the vulnerable must be protected. That pornography is a threat. That free speech has been taken too far. And that companies that have made too much money must be reigned in under the yoke of state direction.

South Africa’s fall from liberal policies has been like the last gasps of some morality play, leaving the stage littered with the corpses of what might have been.

Four years ago, then President Thabo Mbeki told South Africans to “trust” him as allegations of corruption were leveled at the then-Chief of Police, Jackie Selebi. On Tuesday last week, after a lengthy trial, the ex-Interpol president and ex-SA police chief got 15 years in jail.

The South African government has had enough. Enough of journalists exposing corruption in government. They are taking steps to deal with it. First on the list is a new “Protection of Information Bill” to be followed with a “Media Tribunal.”

And then weak governments are weak

Roughly, the bill creates a “Lèse majesté” rule which allows the state to censor any information which could “embarrass” the government. Press freedom advocates will know that these rules are used by dictatorial governments everywhere as the first step towards making any dissent a criminal offence.

Senior ANC representatives then declared their support for the Media Tribunal which would be given powers to arrest and imprison journalists. Keeping sources confidential would also be considered a criminal offence.

On the day in which government was to meet the SA National Editors Forum to “engage,” Peter Bruce, long-time editor of Business Day, had this to say about the matter:

“I just don’t want to be a part of any meetings whose object is to make my country less of a democracy. If I go, and if other editors go, it will merely legitimise what the ANC wants to do anyway — they’ll be able to say they ‘consulted’ the media. But not, at least, with me. This is not Vichy.”

Over the weekend the current chief of police (who recently brought back Apartheid-style military titles to the police) General Bheki Cele was accused of flouting tender procedures in awarding a $50 million rental deal to move current police headquarters to a building owned by a friend of his.

As the editors forum meeting was taking place, Mzilikazi wa Afrika – one of the journalists on the Cele story – was being aggressively arrested downstairs.

Wa Afrika was hauled off to the middle of nowhere and repeatedly interrogated about his political affiliation. His house was searched and a civilian press officer ended up with wa Afrika’s mobile phone. All of wa Afrika’s notebooks from a lifetime in journalism were taken. No warrant was ever produced to justify this action and, as of this writing, two judges have thrown charges against wa Afrika out of court. The state is still planning to charge him and he is currently out on bail.

The government claims that the press is corrupt. Their basis for this accusation is that Ebrahim Rasool, ex-premier of the Western Cape province, had bribed two journalists at the paper I work for (the Cape Argus) to give him favourable coverage. Both journalists were immediately fired and will never work in the industry again.

Ebrahim Rasool is the new South African ambassador in Washington. If such corruption really were important to the state why aren’t they starting with a house cleaning?

The real reason the state wishes to undermine media freedom has emerged as the government has run roughshod over longstanding property rights.

About the only industry making real money in South Africa is mining. Some of the world’s oldest and largest mines are in South Africa. The ANC has used “black economic empowerment” (BEE) as a stick to beat major concessions out of companies doing business in South Africa.

Paying bribes to keep what you own

Hewlett-Packard, an international IT firm, has decided to spend $15 million in “equity equivalent projects” (a nice way of paying a political bribe to stay in business) rather than give away shareholding in its company in order to become BEE compliant. The single exit price on pharmaceuticals has seen drug manufacturers remove their research and development departments from the country. One large multinational I spoke to (who chose to remain nameless) spent over $10 million on a research facility where they hoped to conduct 10 novel drug trials a year. They have retrenched 150 researchers and shut it down.

None of these companies complained. They took it on the chin. Anglo American’s Cynthia Carroll, whose company has dramatically reduced their mining production capacity as a result of power shortages, even went so far as to declare everything as being rosy back in 2008.

Things just became un-rosy. First on the block was ArcelorMittal and Kumba Iron Ore who lost control of a major iron-ore mine to Imperial Crown Trading 289, a company owned by leading friends of the president.

A few weeks later and Lonmin, the third-largest platinum miner in the world, was told that it could no longer sell the by-product metals (nickel, copper, chrome) that it produces as part of its mining operations. The right to sell these was handed to Keysha Investments 220, owned by friends and direct relatives of the president.

Firstly, platinum and the other metals are all mixed together in the ore seam. It is impossible to mine one without mining the other. An equivalent rule would have Toyota losing the rights to sell the Yaris but keeping the rights to sell everything else it produces.

Secondly, any company in South Africa with some random number after its name is a “shelf company” (a company that is registered on the fly and then sold later to someone who urgently needs an official company but doesn’t want to go to the trouble of registering it themselves).

The corruption, the murkiness, and the unpleasant response from a state that refuses to allow the inspection of this crime is all on display.

So why should anyone care about a country at the bottom end of Africa that makes up less than 0.8% of global trade?


It is a war.

The New New Cold War

The Cold War pitted state-directed ideologies (Communism, amongst others) against people-directed aspirations (Capitalism, amongst others).

The latest war is different. It pits state-driven kleptocracy against people-directed aspirations.

People-directed movements are notoriously messy. Free speech means horrible things get said. Free trade means terrible economic bubbles can build up.

But state-directed theft means that only a small number of people get to benefit and live wonderful lives while the majority are poor, unhealthy and without hope.

Freedom – both social and economic – is now under threat everywhere. South Africa is your canary.

The country is not like Russia, Venezuela or China where a strong authority is deliberately undermining civil liberty. It is a weathervane simply trailing the most dominant wind.

If what is happening in South Africa offends you then I suggest you look to the undermining of your freedom back home.

When the dominant winds are those of liberty then South Africa will change too. Until then, the worse it gets in South Africa the more you should worry.

4 replies »

  1. The thing about this that’s most disturbing is that while you have corrupt thugs banging on an issue for all the wrong reasons, at the core there is certainly a fair question about responsible behavior by the press. Now, the press exposing corruption, that’s the PROPER behavior. But here in the US we’re seeing a runaway media that’s doing legitimate damage to the fabric of the Republic.

    America’s framers knew there’d be irresponsible, even appalling excesses by those running rampant with their freedoms. They believed, though, that (in the words of Milton) “the truth would out.”

    This only works, though, when all their assumptions are fulfilled, and key to those assumptions was the certainty that free people would inform themselves and make good-faith, rational (more or less) decisions. We now know that isn’t how it works, and we’ve seen a couple generations of cynical politicians using their freedoms of speech and property rights to aggressively undermine the system.

    It always reminds me of the story from a few years back in Holland, if I recall correctly. Wish I’d bookmarked the story because now I can’t find it. Anyway, a government official was being questioned about the rapid rise of immigration-fueled Islamic power in the country and the very real possibility that someday Muslims would be able to go to the polls and use democracy to vote away democracy and impose Sharia law. Should this be allowed, was the question.

    The official said that he saw no choice but to allow it. That’s how democracy works, he explained.

    Which struck me as barking insane. But what you’re addressing is really quite parallel, once we get past the explicit corruption and bad faith of the SA government. In essence, what do we do about those who use freedom to undermine freedom?

    I’m pretty sure that using force to assure freedom is about as ridiculous as using freedom to enable totalitarianism. I guess no system is perfect…

  2. Either you believe in both social and economic freedom, or you believe in neither. And you have to believe in this even when it is abused if that freedom is to mean anything at all.

    I see the “one man one vote one time” argument and I recognise it as a risk, but forcing a majority – if they really wish to be dominated by a single dictator – to be “free” risks creating terrible contradictions in law.

    I accept that the majority of South Africans voted for the ANC and that they seem pretty happy with what the ANC does. If the outcome of these acts is not in the majority’s best interests they can either change their minds, or deal with the consequences.

    Sam, perhaps what frustrates you most is that you see the consequences of people’s actions and hope to flag these sufficiently that they stop themselves? I feel similarly but there does come a time when one must just stand aside and make sure that you’re elsewhere when disaster strikes.

    • Either you believe in both social and economic freedom, or you believe in neither.

      This is dogma. Prove it.

      I agree that ideally these two things work together, but only in cultural contexts where de Tocqueville’s notion of “self-interest, rightly understood” holds. But here we have evolved into a rampant ideology of “self-interest and fuck the rest of you.”

      Look, I always circle back to the assumptions that the framers of the US system made when they crafted the Constitution. They assumed – logically enough, given their context – that free men (yes, MEN) would, given the opportunity, work to inform themselves. They would, to a significant extent, behave rationally and in their own interests. And you could tolerate the yahoos because in a community of informed men, the truth WOULD out.

      If these assumptions were accurate, the system would work marvelously. But as we know, these assumptions are largely fictions, for a variety of reasons. And the result is that we’re headed for a crash. Yes, I’d love to be somewhere out of the way when it hits.

      Most of the systems we’ve had in history were built on assumptions that reflected at least a little bit of reality, but I can’t think of any that rest on a truly accurate view of human nature. If you managed to build a govt and economic model on the assumption that people will seek leisure, then you might be onto something in the US.

      Here, though, we have a system that cannot withstand what the right has done to the electoral and media sectors. Our ideologies glorify ignorance and vilify anyone who suggests that maybe, just maybe not everybody DOES know what’s best for them, despite mountains of evidence.