Raymond Joseph: South Africa’s Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill is deeply flawed

Jacob Zuma (Photo: Jordi Matas / Demotix)

Jacob Zuma (Photo: Jordi Matas / Demotix)

With the new year comes a new battle in South Africa as critics hit back at the proposed “draconian” Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill they say doesn’t differentiate “between espionage and an act of journalism”.

The bill comes against the backdrop of ongoing government hostility towards the media. Exposés by journalists of corruption and cronyism within the ranks of the governing African National Congress (ANC) have led to accusations by the party that the media casts it in a “negative light” and acts in opposition to it.

On the face of it, the legislation is a ham-fisted attempt to push through by stealth key aspects of the stalled and deeply flawed Protection of State Information Bill, which was first introduced in parliament in March 2010.

Dubbed the Secrecy Bill, it has reached the penultimate step in the legislative process, requiring only that President Jacob Zuma sign it into law. But, in the face of stiff opposition and threats of a Constitutional Court challenge, it has been gathering dust on the president’s desk for over two years, unsigned.

“Whole sections of the [Cybercrimes] Bill are copy-and-paste from the Secrecy Bill,” says Murray Hunter, a spokesman for the freedom of expression Right2Know (R2K) campaign. A draft version of the bill was published in August last year, with two months allowed for comments.

In a preliminary submission, R2K says some provisions of the Cybercrimes Bill go way beyond those contained in the Secrecy Bill and include “harsh, draconian penalties that would muzzle journalists, whistleblowers and data activists”.

The bill makes it an offence to “unlawfully and intentionally” hold, communicate, deliver, make available or receive data “which is in possession of the state and which is classified”. Penalties range from five to 15 years in jail and, worryingly, there is no public interest defence or whistleblower protection.

R2K has also highlighted some of its key objections to the bill in a document entitled What’s Wrong With the Cybercrimes Bill: The Seven Deadly Sins.

Hunter concedes that while policies that promote the online security of ordinary citizens are necessary, the bill is part of a raft of new “cybercrime laws popping up across the world that threaten internet freedom”.

“The policy debates in the US and UK are examples of a renewed appetite for backdoor access to privately-owned networks,” he says. “The idea is usually that governments say they want to users to have greater security against ‘outside’ threats, but still want government agencies to be able to penetrate that security.”

The bill effectively hands over the keys of the internet to South Africa’s Ministry of State Security and would dramatically increase the state’s power to snoop on users and wrests governance away from civilian bodies.

“Remember that security means protecting people’s information not only from ‘cybercriminals’, but also from state surveillance,” says Hunter.

Put another way, it’s a bit like having a really great lock on your front door, but leaving the spare key under the mat; either a system is secure against all threats or it is vulnerable to all threats.

Another big concern is that the bill, in its current form would potentially criminalise digital security analysts.

“One of the major protections for internet users’ security is a global community of security analysts and researchers who test the systems, apps and websites as a civic duty, in order to point out and fix security flaws that put the general public at risk,” says Hunter. “Basically, they are online activists who are constantly trying to find security weaknesses in other people’s systems [often belonging to governments and private companies] in order to point them out and get them fixed.”

But the bill would make these practices a criminal offence unless it was “authorised”, and in doing so would potentially make ordinary users less safe.

All of these moves contain uncomfortable historical echoes — it’s only been 22 years since South Africa became a democracy, and surveillance against citizens was among the apartheid government’s notorious specialties.

So the idea of a democratically-elected government, backed up by laws that legitimise intercepting its private citizens’ information, is especially fraught.

As temperatures soar and an “epic drought” tightens its grip on the country, all indications are that it’s going to be a long, hot summer in more ways than one, as activists and journalists prepare to fend off yet another attempt to curb South Africa’s hard-won freedom.

Raymond Joseph: Activism reawakens in South Africa’s students

Holding a dustbin in front of his chest the young bare-chested student stands defiantly in the middle of a dusty road, facing down a squad of heavily-armed riot police.

Suddenly his body begins jerking crazily like a puppet on a string as bullets fired by a police marksman armed with a high-powered FN rifle smash through his useless shield and thud into his body. Almost four decades later this deadly tableau that played out on an Alexandra Township street a few days after the 16 June 1976 student uprising against the use of Afrikaans began in Soweto is still etched into my memory.

As a young reporter, I had been assigned that day to cover the unrest that had spread to Alex, as the flames of insurrection raced across apartheid South Africa like wildfire.

Over the weeks that followed, I regularly witnessed how police reacted with deadly brute force against student protesters armed only with rocks and anti-apartheid songs.

I also remember the mass meetings and marches in the early 70s against harsh apartheid laws by students at Johannesburg’s Wits University, which were inevitably broken up by police with vicious dogs and armed with whips, batons and tear gas.

So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I sat and watched on television almost two decades into South Africa’s young democracy as riot police used rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas to break up country-wide protests by students against above-inflation university fees hikes. They were also demanding that universities end the outsourcing of campus cleaning and maintenance jobs and for the people who do them to become full-time employees.

The fees protests came against a backdrop of a decrease in government subsidies leading to a growing dependency on student fees to make up shortfalls. But they also point to a much deeper problem at South African universities.

What South Africa has been witnessing is a reawakening of activism among students after a hiatus of almost two decades. For a week, campuses across the country embarked on the biggest nationwide student protests since the birth of the new democratic society in 1994.

But student and youth-led activism in South Africa is not new. It was pressure by the ANC Youth League leaders, including Nelson Mandela, which forced the organisation’s leadership to adopt a programme of action in 1949, including mass resistance tactics like strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. It was also pressure on the leadership by youth that resulted in the 1952 launch of the Defiance Campaign against unjust apartheid laws.

But one big difference in these latest protests was the harnessing of social media as a rallying and activism tool. Powered by the #FeesMustFall hashtag the issue went viral with over half a million tweets and counting as Twitter became a powerful tool in the hands of the protestors.

With the ubiquity of smartphones among the students, Twitter became the go-to source to keep up with the rapidly unfolding story as the protests spread to 18 university campuses in eight of the country’s nine provinces, forcing the suspension of lectures and the cancelation of exams.

In the early days of the protests, some callers to radio shows at first dismissed the students’ actions as hooliganism.

But sentiments quickly turned in favour of the students as social media posts captured the unfolding drama in real time as the gloves came off and police moved against students who forced their way into the Parliamentary precinct in Cape Town.

Having evicted students, many holding their hands in the air as a sign of non-violence, the protest continued on the streets around Parliament–but once again police reacted with a heavy-handed response.

The growing anger and public support for the students were also fueled by the ANC-dominated Parliament carrying on with business as usual, even as the sound of stun grenades and rounds being fired rang through the chamber. Anger mounted as reports emerged that police were considering charging some of those arrested with high treason.

But Twitter also captured some poignant lump-in-the-throat moments as social media showed students of all races and political persuasions joining hands, and white students forming a human shield around black students in the belief that police were less likely to act against them.

The country-wide demonstrations culminated in a mass protest at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of South Africa’s government.

As demonstrators on the lawns outside chanted and sang, President Jacob Zuma met with university chancellors and students leaders, before his government capitulated to student demands. As the protests continued outside, Zuma appeared live on national TV and announced that there would be a 0% increase in university fees in 2016.

The news immediately spawned the jubilant new hashtag #FeesHaveFallen with some protesters saying that the suspension of 2016 fees was just the beginning of their struggle and vowed to continue the fight for free university education.

One thing is clear: after a week of protests by South Africa’s future generation of leaders, the country’s democracy was far stronger than when it began – and the high toll paid by the young man with the dustbin lid and others had not been in vain.

This column was posted on 27 October 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

South Africa’s “biggest protests since apartheid”

Many South African universities remain closed as thousands of students protest proposed fee hikes in what is believed to be some of the largest demonstrations to hit the country since apartheid. So far, 29 South Africans have been charged with violent offences as police continue to use heavy-handed tactics. High treason is among the alleged offences of protesters. And a court is seeking to ban the hashtag #feesmustfall, trending across South Africa.

The demonstrations began last week at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and have since spread around the country. South African president Jacob Zuma is meeting with students today to discuss tuition fees. Student negotiations have led to the government offering to cap fees hikes at 6% rather than proposed 10%, but demonstrations continue.


A protest outside parliament buildings in Cape Town on Wednesday led to clashes with South African riot police, who fired stun grenades at demonstrators. As the South African minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, tried to reason with the crowd, he was met with calls for his resignation and placards reading: “Fees must fall, education for all”.

Students pushed past parliament gates and made their way inside the grounds. There, they sat on the ground, blocking entry and exit.

There were similar scenes on Monday night when students occupied the Bremner building at the Univerity of Cape Town. Police showed up in riot gear and arrested many for various offences. 

The hashtag #FeesMustFall is being used on social media for people to voice their opinions and follow the protests. Following a request from the management at the University of Cape Town, the South African High Court has reportedly issued an interdiction against the hashtag in an attempt to silence dissent. Jane Duncan, professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg is quoted in HTXT.Africa, saying that the inclusion of the hashtag demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how the internet works, and in “its ill-defined breadth” could make criminals of anyone who uses it.


How exactly the court intends to enforce a ban on a hashtag remains to be seen, but if true, it would have very serious implications for freedom of expression in South Africa.

A statement of solidarity with students in South Africa has been issued by the alumni of 24 schools, colleges and universities around the world, including King’s College London, as well as the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard. Signatories are “outraged by the use of violence from police”. 

“Each of us stands in solidarity with the students, staff and workers protesting in South Africa, at parliament, universities and institutions of higher education. They are making history on streets and campuses across the country,” the statement reads.

“No unarmed and non-violent group of students should be dispersed with stun grenades, tear gassed, pepper sprayed, or shot at. All should be equal before the law, and we condemn the targeting of black students by the police. We call for the immediate release of students who have been arrested or detained in the context of peaceful protest action.”

Additional research by Anna Gregory, a student at The Crossley Heath School, Halifax, England.

South Africa: ANC ahead in media coverage as country votes

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has received an overwhelming majority of media coverage ahead of the country’s fifth democratic election which is it expected to win. Media Monitoring Africa, a non-profit watchdog, revealed 39% of all reporting across 50 print, broadcast and online sources referred to the ANC, whether by name or by using a party source up to April 30.

Although the current government has the ability to control a significant part of the election message primarily through the state broadcaster, the SABC, the ANC’s share of the pre-poll media space has been helped by their competitors. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the next most media-prevalent party the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), have structured their campaigns on attacking Jacob Zuma’s party ahead of promoting their own aims, despite the ANC’s attempts to silence them.

While more than half the media coverage is dedicated to party campaigning and politics, the next highest covered topic is corruption, specifically Zuma’s homestead, Nkandla. The residence received a R246 million (£13.85 million) state-funded upgrade over two years which South Africa’s public protector Thuli Madonsela declared as an undue benefit to Zuma and his family in a report released six weeks before the elections.

Madonsela’s findings provided a springboard for the DA’s primary electioneering strategy. In late March, the party sent out a text message to more than 1.5 million people in the Gauteng province, where the country’s capital Pretoria and economic hub Johannesburg are located, which in part read: “The Nkandla report shows how Zuma stole your money… Vote DA on 7 May to beat corruption.”

The ANC launched an urgent court application to stop the message from being sent out. It took issue with the word “stole”, which Madonesela had not used it in her report and called the contents of the DA’s text a “deliberate lie”. Acting judge Mike Hellens ruled the DA’s actions as fair comment because he said their conclusion could have been made by a reasonable person.

That has not meant the DA has been successful in attacking the ANC on other platforms, specifically the SABC. A DA television advert was pulled off air after three showings on 8 and 9 April because the broadcaster said it would not screen messages which incited violence, contained false information, went against the Advertising Standards Authority’s guidelines which do not permit promotion of one product by attacking another or which contain a personal attack on any party member by another.

The 44-second commercial featured the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane calling “Jacob Zuma’s ANC corrupt” and, when talking over a visual of a policeman aiming a firearm at civilians saying: “We have seen a police force killing our own people.” The latter is reference to the Marikana massacre in 2012 when police and striking workers were involved in a violent exchange which resulted in the deaths of 44 people.

At first ICASA overturned the SABC’s ban but when the South African police force approached them and said the images could endanger its officers, the ban was upheld. South Africa’s freedom of expression right, contained in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, prohibits, amongst other things, incitement of violence.

The DA then launched a second television advert which began with Maimane saying the words, “They tried to silence us…” before going into a narrative about the changes the DA will enforce. The SABC refused to air this as well because of the opening line which it said was untrue since ICASA had upheld the initial ban. The DA called the decision “censorship, plain and simple”.

They are not alone in making that accusation. The EFF’s leader Julius Malema said the SABC were guilty of “suppressing democracy” because it banned one of his party’s adverts. The commercial in question also referred to “Nkandla corruption” and ended with Malema’s face on a poster which reads: “Destroy e-tolls physically.” E-tolls are the new electronic tolling system installed on highways in the Gauteng province which have caused public outrage because of their costs.

The SABC took issue with the call to commit vandalism, which it said was included in the limitation of the right to free speech. Malema defended the poster, arguing it conveyed the message that if the EFF came into power they would “destroy e-tolls physically because we can’t destroy them emotionally” ICASA sided with the SABC, agreeing that the message “could be perceived as condoning… unlawful acts”.

Despite what has been seen as the public broadcaster toeing the ruling party line, other outlets have been vocal against the ANC. Last Friday, the Mail and Guardian, a weekly paper which has traditionally supported the left-wing, published an editorial urging readers to dilute the ANC’s power by voting against it. “Never before has the M&G urged readers to oppose the ANC. But we do so now because the aim is to make the ANC more effective and responsive,” read their piece. But even that would have counted as coverage for the ruling party.

This article was published on May 6, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org