The masses stay silent

On 22 November, South Africans were supposed to be making a final plea to parliament to vote against the Protection of State Information Bill. Those who opposed the bill had been asked to tape their mouths shut and dress in black to symbolise the death of free speech if this bill were voted in. The media dubbed it "Black Tuesday", in reference to an apartheid-era crackdown on journalists.

I left my house in the south of Johannesburg that morning with high expectations. Alas, I saw all of two people dressed in black out of many I passed in the 15 minutes it took me to walk my son to preschool. Neither of the two had their mouths taped, so I was unsure whether their wearing black was a political or a fashion statement. I hoped things were faring better downtown and in South Africa's home of government, Cape Town.

Since 2008, august South African personages such as Desmond Tutu and Nadine Gordimer have joined the South African media in opposing the bill. Nicknamed the "Secrecy Bill", the law would make it a crime to leak, possess or publish information judged as classified by the government. One would expect to get three to five years in prison for failing to report anyone possessing classifiable information - goodbye investigative journalists - and up to 25 years for actually possessing classified information - goodbye whistle-blowers.

Later that day, I was in the centre of town running some errands. A walk through the busy major taxi ranks - Bree, Noord, and Faraday - did not find a significant number of people wearing black. In Cape Town, word was that only about 600 people had turned up at parliament to show opposition to the bill, which subsequently passed by 229 to 107 votes.

A month previously, the suspended ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, had led a march as part of the "Economic freedom in our lifetime" campaign, which pulled in a crowd of over ten thousand.

Black and white media

Ten thousand versus 600: did this 17 year-old nation with a 35 per cent unemployment rate, and where more than 80 per cent of the stock exchange is still in white hands, find "free speech" a less important issue to deal with?

A friend who works in academia told me that to her it seemed like a black and white issue. The white-owned media were in danger of losing their livelihood through the bill, so they were making a louder noise about it than about poverty, education and health care, which are black issues. When I pointed out that most of the editors are black, she responded that the media houses did not have a majority black voice in ownership.

Others appeared to share this view. "If apartheid had been fought with this much vigour by these middle-class and upper-class whites," tweeted one noted feminist writer, "it would have lasted exactly two weeks."

Perhaps now is the time for South Africa's media to look in the mirror and see how they have lost touch with the (wo)man on the street. Failure to do so may mean that - at the Johannesburg taxi ranks and all over the country - when the bill appears before the nation's upper house, the masses will continue with their business and not care, just like they seemed not to care on Black Tuesday.

Zukiswa Wanner is a novelist based in Johannesburg

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral