The State of Freedom of Speech in the Nation

12 Feb 2019
The State of Freedom of Speech in the Nation

On Thursday, 7 February 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), the 25th annual address by a South African head of state in the democratic dispensation.

President Ramaphosa’s speech, which coincides with an election year, was delivered to a citizenry increasingly frustrated by poor economic growth, rising unemployment, widespread violence against women and children, deep-seated corruption in both the public and private spheres, a weak education system, and growing racial tension, among other things.

While Ramaphosa’s speech did not specifically reference the right to freedom of expression, several policy commitments pointed to governments’ recognition of the need to safeguard this fundamental right:

The establishment of an intelligence unit to protect citizens, not politicians

President Ramaphosa announced the government’s intention to re-establish an intelligence agency whose job is to “…defend and protect the people of South Africa and not any party political official.”

Perhaps a unit of this nature will offer threatened writers, of the SABC 8’s ilk, another forum in which those engaged in free expression work can seek protection from political interference.

A focus on reading comprehension in foundation phase schooling

Improving reading comprehension in the first years of school was identified by Pres. Ramaphosa as another critical priority, which he acknowledged as essential to equip children to succeed not only in education, but equally importantly, in work and in life. Pres. Ramaphosa singled out reading comprehension as “one of the most important factors in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

This is an incontrovertible claim because literacy enables citizens to participate more fully in the free exchange of ideas, to engage in creative production and express opinions and thoughts more widely, particularly where enjoyment of this right is not threatened or unduly undermined.

Creation of township digital hubs

While the impetus for the creation of township digital hubs is to stimulate entrepreneurship, increasing impoverished youth’s access to internet connectivity is anticipated to have the additional benefit of enhancing formerly marginalised people’s participation, engagement with and contribution to public discourse.

Telecommunications expansion

Pres. Ramaphosa, noting that “[t]he telecommunications sector represents vast potential for boosting economic growth,” affirmed that the Minister of Communications will shortly provide the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) with policy direction in respect of the licensing of the high demand radio frequency spectrum. This spectrum will facilitate the expansion of existing mobile phone and broadcasting (radio and television) capabilities, which is expected to substantially reduce telecommunication costs – addressing a longstanding appeal by South Africans from all walks of life.

As the date for the general elections draws nearer (elections are scheduled for the 8th of May 2019), and political contestation fuels public dialogue and debate – particularly on social media channels – may we not take for granted our constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression.