Riaan Salie writes for the Free Market Foundation and is a policy fellow at the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement.
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This article was first published on City Press on 5 May 2022
South Africa’s surveillance state, a threat to democracy
From internet censorship to proposed biometric sim-cards and legislation mandating medical treatments, South Africa is on a course towards a fully-fledged surveillance state. Unsurprisingly, the country is following in the footsteps of Brazil, Russia, India and China in clamping down on individual freedoms to purportedly advance ‘the greater good’.
Unlike freer nations, with accountable public servants, impunity is rampant in South Africa. No politicians have been prosecuted in the aftermath of the State Capture Reports. So, when a rogue government pushes for unfettered surveillance powers everyone should be alarmed.
The precursor to the African National Congress (ANC) adopting surveillance laws is found within its historical ties to the former Soviet Union. Josiah Gumede, founding father of the ANC, established close ties with the Soviets through a series of political trips to the USSR in 1927. Together with the Communist Party of South Africa, the ANC secured donations from the Soviets of up to 12,455 in 1962. ANC leaders such as Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela indicated that the ANC pledged allegiance to Moscow's agenda for Southern Africa.
Through the adoption of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the ANC resolved to ‘control all levers of state power’ within the next 30 to 50 years. Thus, controlling Eskom, railway services, mines, and South African Airways – the majority of these lie in tatters now. In short, South Africa’s economic collapse was methodically planned and executed with brutal precision.
It is within this broader context that, alarmingly on 1 March 2022, the Internet Censorship Bill came into effect. It grants the Film and Publications Board (FPB) unfettered internet regulator status, in line with the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – annual summit regulatory agenda on data protection, content regulation and cybercrime, wherein BRICS welcomed intergovernmental cooperation on legal frameworks in the Information and Communication Technology sector to combat cybercrime.
In 2020, Brazil adopted the Fake News Bill, garnering fierce criticism from Google. Russia passed its Internet Sovereign Law, in 2019, that filters and blocks online content and Virtual Private Networks at an unprecedented scale. India’s Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules, in 2021, compels social media companies to enforce tracing measures onto users. China’s ‘Great FireWall’ is the most advanced internet censorship technology in the world. With South Africa following suit, censorship is at the doorstep of every South African.
These BRICS surveillance laws share one common denominator: online content moderation. Passed under the guise of supposed ‘cybercrime prevention’ which almost always ends up silencing voices of dissent. However, mass surveillance aligns perfectly with the ANC’s objectives outlined in the NDR, as the fourth phase of the NDR outlines that ‘all levers of power must be controlled’ by the state and key to that objective is information.
Through the Health Act Amendment, government wants to enforce medical tyranny on the population. If approved, the amendments would permanently legislate emergency powers and allow officials to mandate medical treatments for persons with ‘notifiable medical conditions’. This would both undermine public trust of the government's effort to quell a real emergency but would also upend trust in the medical community altogether. Government should be warned that these measures would undermine the legitimacy of the executive branch of government.
Likewise, internet censorship has far-reaching implications for civil discourse, the economy and a country’s reputation. Research found that temporary Internet shutdowns cost Brazil 16 million and India $968 million. While, in 2011, a five day Internet shutdown in Egypt, to clampdown on opposition protests, cost $90 million.
With the internet representing 5.3% of South Africa’s GDP in 2016, the ANC can ill afford to play censorship games with the country. However, ideology trumps logic within the ANC; specifically Soviet sponsored ideology. Despite commitments to ‘reform’, South Africa is being forced down a road of misery and demise at the hands of the NDR.
The Internet Censorship Bill is a blatant infringement of civil liberties and the most sinister law passed in South Africa since the dawn of democracy. Consequently, this Bill will follow with more subtle forms of media capture, since the FPB may indiscriminately wave its regulator status around and suppress media, upending a decade of freedom emanating from democratisation, towards a Soviet-style sort of tyranny.
Although the economic cost will be grave, the societal cost will be seismic. Citizens will be left vulnerable against a state directly implicated in state capture.
The Internet Censorship law is a dangerous political tool, which may be used against any opposition at any time. Crucially, South Africans will take to the polls in 2024, the most significant election in our lifetime, under the watch of this evil law. If content moderation ramps up in the lead up to the election, then the integrity of the election will be fiercely questioned.
The Internet Censorship Law together with the Health Act Amendments need to be struck down as a matter of urgency.