IT WAS in 1995 that I returned from self-imposed exile and America’s West Coast. Having launched what would be the very first online act of mass civil disobedience against John Major’s Criminal Justice Bill the previous year. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Whitehall were launched from a techno party at the 181 Club in San Francisco, followed by a landmark Digital Be-In ‘CyberSafari’ videoconferencing event, linking the continent of North America with Africa — that I embarked on a series of public happenings in South Africa, culminating in several inaugural cyber-rights events at the iCafe in Long St, Cape Town.
A photograph from the period shows me at a terminal, wearing a Mondo 2000 t-shirt, at the very first NetDemocracy event in the country hosted by Nodi Murphy and Stephen Garrett. A simple information activist, participating in an online Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chat with Minister Pallo Jordan alongside 120 citizens from around the country, all of whom happened to be online.
￼“Internet Cafe expert gets in touch with Posts and Telecommunications Ministers Dr Pallo Jordan via the Internet relay chat held in the city yesterday. More than 120 people from around the country asked him questions about the Green Paper on telecommunications policies.” opined the Cape Times.
Jordan would later the same day, accept a complimentary copy of the Virtual Community, Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold, as I proceeded to also fax Minister Jay Naidoo, with demands that we resist the urge to simply usher in the Internet Age, but also take proactive steps to protect user’s rights online, rights such as the right to privacy, right to not have one’s communication intercepted, right to receive and impart communication electronically, right to cryptography and pretty good privacy (PGP), the right to download and upload information, the right to copy data and so on.
Successive events the following year in 1996 held during the constitution-building process, charted new territory and included a CuSeeMe video-call with columnist and digital rights advocate Douglas Rushkoff from New York, a public IRC session with the editor of Future Sex Magazine, Lisa Palac , and a controversial session on Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas entitled ‘Negritude on the Net’, and other such interventions.
The somewhat crude outcome wasn’t exactly what we all intended, in the end, there was unfortunately, no single article in our constitution entitled ‘Internet Rights’, but instead, as fate would have it, the authors of the Constitution and our Bill of Rights achieved the same. By engaging in public consultation, by utilising the very same tools we, as net activists, were advocating, the constituent assembly effected an astonished feat and made good on many promises. Eventually including a suite of astonishing information and communication rights, many of them applicable and ready-to-wear or subsumed under other legal headings.
The historically important result was noted by Wired Magazine, who reported on the landmark inclusion of information and other rights. A first for any country on the planet. Thus, article 14 ‘Right to Privacy’, has the crucial right to not have the privacy of our communications infringed.
Article 16 Freedom of Expression aside from granting individuals the freedom to blog, tweet and produce electronic media, contains the all important ‘freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;’
Article 32 Access to Information, guarantees ‘access to information held by the state, or required for the exercise or protection of any rights.’
These three foundational rights or ‘spheres of responsibility’, when read together form an important guarantee of online freedoms and cyber-liberties, and must be seen against the backdrop of the constitution’s formation, as a secular document enshrining civil liberties for the digital age. One can thus be proud of the 21st century wording, which is both progressive and future proof.
For our nation’s founder Nelson Mandela, it was a major milestone in constitution building and alongside the rise of the Internet as the World Wide Web, which had came in the aftermath of our very first democratic election, we had collectively opened the doors of technological progress.
South African’s can be grateful we all have a digital-ready constitution and that the country has one of the most strident and open information provisions anywhere on the globe. Municipal, provincial and national government all actively share information online with voters and taxpayers.
Our taxes are now accessed via an online portal operated by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), as are other government services. A public campaign to provide free and open access to internet and data has been gaining steam, and many metros are now providing wifi for gratis.
Despite the enormous progress and despite such guarantees, as I write this, there are still several current legislative threats before the House of Assembly, pitted against our hard-won freedoms, and include the Film & Publications Amendment Bill, the Copyright Amendment Bill and Cybercrime Bill, all introduced by the ruling party, and all containing wording, stratagems and concepts which run counter to the spirit of the constitution and the nation’s legacy of cyber rights.
It thus remains up to the generation of today, the millennials and especially the new crop of digital activists and open access cadres, to defend online freedom and African cyberspace, to make good on the many promises contained in South Africa’s Constitution.