Why the Information Bill Matters to Us Ikamvanites

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 - 10:09

Let’s be frank, Black Tuesday came and went for the majority of IkamvaYouth without much fanfare as the Secrecy Bill passed through parliament. A few Ikamvanites wore black, tweeted or re-tweeted on a selection of the events of the day but – by in large – the day was much like any other with immediate concerns such as passing exams and more mundane everyday issues taking priority.

We can safely assume that this scene was repeated throughout township and rural communities across the country and perhaps Steven Friedman has identified one of the key reasons here. Unfortunately, this lack of interest does not mean there will be no serious repercussions for township and rural communities and therefore Ikamvanites (as Friedman points out). There are also major areas of concern in Pierre De Vos’s account of the technical aspects of the Bill and the powers it gives to government to guard and classify information. Given too that Desmond Tutu refers to the Bill as an “insult to all South Africans” and Jay Naidoo issues warnings against “a dangerous and paranoid direction for our country” it is only wise to reflect on the issues ourselves and how they relate to our own positions.

We’ve said it often that IkamvaYouth strives not only to achieve great impact in what we do, but also strives to be very deliberate in the way we do it. As you know, IkamvaYouth operates as a grassroots organisational democracy underpinned by a set of core IkamvaYouth values that seek inclusive decision-making, collective ownership and consensus wherever possible. IkamvaYouth flips the traditional hierarchical top-down approach on its head with branch representatives (including beneficiaries) hiring/firing branch coordinators and branch coordinators hiring/firing regional coordinators (effectively their bosses in both instances). The IkamvaYouth board, in addition to its legal and fiduciary duties, acts primarily as custodian of the IkamvaYouth values (much like a constitutional court) and at all levels, stakeholders are invited to offer input to meetings when decisions will impact directly on their circumstances.

The upshot of working in this way means that a branch of IkamvaYouth does not just work within a particular community but, more accurately, the branch ends up creating a community and it’s a community anchored in and centred around IkamvaYouth’s organisational values. For this to work though, and for any democratic community to work, we have to have access to as much information as possible or we will make poor decisions and/or disengage from the process. What’s more, as Parker Palmer helpfully points out, democracy is fundamentally a matter of the human heart and the great democratic journey is a continual alignment and re-alignment of our individual and collective hearts with the core democratic values. This is the only way we’re able to find the “courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit”.

In the IkamvaYouth context, ready access to relevant information for informed and engaged decision-making means a transparency on budgetary issues and sensitive topics like salaries. Everyone at IkamvaYouth knows what everyone else is earning and conflicts are discussed openly and honestly trusting the process that collective wisdom guided by the IkamvaYouth values will continue to move us in the direction we wish to go. Like any good democracy, IkamvaYouth is invariably a little messy on occasion and sometimes meetings can be tense. We are also often less efficient than the authoritarian alternative (except with regards to social impact) but the upside in terms of collective buy-in, pride and ownership is significant and the gains are immeasurable in helping to create community.

The problem with the Information Bill (or at least one of the problems) is that it introduces a new barrier to creating the kind of community we long for in South Africa (and we’ve got more than enough barriers already). It makes it harder for us to be engaged active citizens even assuming that there may be some highly-specific pieces of information justifiably held by the state. The members of parliament who voted for the Bill showed little sign that they held every aspect of the Bill up against the light of the values enshrined in the constitution or gave serious thought to the constitutional principal of transparent governance. They also showed little appreciation of the life-lesson that we can’t be in real community when we keep too many secrets regardless of how honourable our intentions at the outset. In short, it feels like our democratic hearts are unaligned and it is instructive that both Pierre De Vos and Jay Naidoo (above) invoke the issue of “trust” as core to what’s at stake.

Experience has taught us that a necessary condition for each of us to remain active, responsible, democratic IkamvaYouth Citizens is for us to have access to as much information as possible in making properly informed and constructive decisions. It is a vital component of our desire to remain rooted in our values and in authentic community with each other. Similarly then, for us to be active, responsible, democratic citizens sharing our lives together in this country the same must surely apply. We need access to as much information as possible to remain an engaged citizenry and to check how the country’s democratic heart aligns with our treasured democratic values. Democracy is not a passive past-time and we’re going to have to work continuously and exceptionally hard to keep it but since it’s a matter of the heart it will bring us great meaning, sometimes pain and often life.

As Ikamvanites, we have an opportunity to be an example to the rest of the country of a functioning democratic grassroots community in our own small way. We can’t work on healing our hearts and aligning our values without also working on healing the social and economic injustices of the past which is why the ‘what’ we do and social impact remains so important but it is ultimately also the ‘way’ that we do things that will determine whether we remain active and engaged and in authentic community with each other and our country.

- Andrew Barrett is Gauteng Regional Coordinator at IkamvaYouth.