On 22 November 2011 – dubbed “Black Tuesday” by the media, evoking “Black Wednesday” in October 1977 when the apartheid government banned several newspapers – members of the National Assembly voted 229 to 107, with two abstentions, to pass the controversial Protection of State Information Bill (POSIB). But not without a fight. Around the country, thousands rallied to express their opposition to this closing of political space. People donned black clothing, blacked out their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter, and phoned parliamentary Chief Whips to raise their objections. I felt the anger and resilience in the 200-person picket outside of Luthuli House in Sauer Street in the Johannesburg CBD. Pickets were staged outside Parliament in Cape Town, and in Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Vereeniging. Opposition parties made dramatic pleas from the National Assembly floor. The story dominated headlines and airwaves.
This three-year struggle now moves to the National Council of Provinces, then President’s desk and almost inexorably to the Constitutional Court. But why should the South African Jewish community care? Is this a “Jewish issue”?
Many think it is, including Mary Kluk, chairman of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. “As Jewish South Africans, the prospect that the freedom of the press that we celebrate could be infringed is untenable,” she says, “I firmly believe this is our fight. We are part of the fabric of this country. This affects us – we enjoy freedom to practise our religion, and we demand fair treatment, transparency, honesty. We must treasure and defend those rights, for us, and for everyone”.
Rabbi Aharon Rose, chairman of the SA Rabbinical Association, qualifies to an extent what kind of information should be in the public domain, but agrees that censorship should not extend to issues that are clearly of public concern. “It is a question of what is and what is not in the public interest”, he says, “Jewish law – the Halacha – is clear in its prohibition against the dissemination of lashon hara, that is, malicious gossip. Consequently, it would regard salacious gossip as not being not in public interest. However, information relating to how the country is being run, for example on alleged corruption in government, certainly is in the public interest and should not be withheld”.
According to Professor Anton Harber from the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Journalism, “A lack of information, a loss of transparency affects all individuals and groups, because it disempowers them in relation to the state. And when we have to defend ourselves, we may not have access to the information we need to do so.” He adds, “Like many communities, the issues we are concerned with are all tied up with what we do and do not know.” Some examples he gives include who funds South African political parties, particularly from the Arab world, or the campaigns mounted against Israel in this country.
Dr Ivor Blumenthal, station manager of 101.9 CHAI FM, says, “This Bill, if law, would severely restrict our ability to investigate issues of concern to the Jewish community. It could, for example, prevent us from asking tough questions, like how foreign policy decisions are taken, or about anti-Semitism. Questions about how much South Africa does with Muslim states could potentially be classified as state secrets.”
“We are an integral part of South African society,” comments Rabbi Robert Jacobs, acting chair of the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), “This rather confusing Bill seems antithetical to society’s best interest. Through SACRED, we actively encouraged our community to embrace ‘Black Tuesday’ – it was a valid, non-violent, apparent and personal choice in line with our religious values.”
Jayshree Pather, a member of the R2K National Working Group says that everyone, including minorities, should be worried about the Bill. “If it becomes law, it will affect every single citizen, and our ability and right to access information, affecting all our other rights – to housing, health, employment, education – especially at local level. A veil of secrecy restricts all those rights”, she says.
Pather added that having the SAJBD on the R2K in Gauteng had been “phenomenal” and expressed the wish that other religious communities would become more active. “It has been a struggle in Gauteng”, she admitted. “This campaign has created an incredibly diverse coalition of concerned South Africans across the spectrum – which just shows how seriously so many different constituencies take the issue, and that we can build consensus, and build a nation.”
As the battle moves into the next trench, there are many reasons for Jewish South Africans to take note and take part. Hillel put it best, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Steven Gruzd is the senior researcher and diplomatic liaison at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. He represents the Board on the Gauteng Working Group of the Right to Know Campaign, www.r2k.org
This article first appeared in the South African Jewish Report on 24 November 2012