newspapers media xxx Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE head of the Free Market Foundation, Leon Louw, was spot-on when he castigated journalists on this page last week. As he said, "conspicuous exceptions aside, journalists are typically praise-singers for government intervention against everyone else".

Louw argues that the Protection of State Information Bill — against which the media has rightly protested — may be a welcome "wake-up call for those journalists who have never internalised the immortal observation that freedom is indivisible".

The same could be said of the nonprofit sector. Again with exceptions, many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have been supportive of the dirigiste thrust of government policy since 1994. This includes black economic empowerment (BEE) and employment equity legislation.

Some of these NGOs — happy to see the private sector trussed up in red BEE tape — were about to get a taste of their own medicine with recent proposed changes to BEE codes that would have denied empowerment points for charities without exclusively black beneficiaries.

The proposal was straight out of the apartheid rule book, which records how, in 1966, the then department of social welfare threatened sanctions against multiracial welfare organisations, some of which then duly segregated themselves.

Fortunately, this time around, objections from the nonprofit sector helped to persuade the Department of Trade and Industry to water down this aspect of its proposals to tighten empowerment codes.

But the nonprofit sector is not out of the woods. It never will be. Dating back at least to its conference in Mafikeng in 1997, elements within the African National Congress (ANC) have long been hostile to independent institutions in civil society, especially those which may be critical.

Last month, the South African Democratic Teachers Union warned against "imperialist neoliberal forces masquerading as NGOs to erode the progress of the national democratic revolution". Others voicing hostility to independent institutions in civil society include Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, along with other top communists, among them Jeremy Cronin and Blade Nzimande. Nzimande is busy taking greater control over universities.

A range of countries — Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Venezuela, Malaysia, Bahrain, Ecuador and Turkmenistan — have recently introduced or are reported to be contemplating legislation to control NGOs.

Russia has recently enacted controls, and only a few months ago the South African Communist Party attacked liberal NGOs for "dumbing down the constitution by trying to turn it into a liberal document upholding individual rights and checking and balancing the state".

Given the poor state of public schooling, one would have thought few in the nonprofit sector would want to increase the powers of the state over schooling, least of all when that state has been found by the courts to have "opprobriously invoked the ugly spectre of race to obfuscate its unlawful conduct".

But that is exactly what is happening as the Centre for Child Law, the Legal Resources Centre and Equal Education have announced their wish to challenge the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal upholding the rights of the governing body of the Rivonia Primary School against the Gauteng department of education.

In a unanimous judgment, Azhar Cachalia said the department had acted unlawfully in instructing the school principal to admit a pupil contrary to the school’s admission policy. Independent institutions, whether NGOs, the media, universities or schools, are anathema to the totalitarian mind-set that is characteristic of communists. Few institutions are safe from attack of one kind or another by a government comprised of two political parties desirous of maximising control over "all centres of power".

Controls have been steadily extended since 1994, with the imposition of numerous statutory regulatory bodies all over the place. The independent legal profession is among those next in the firing line.

The media accordingly needs to jack up its vigilance. The same applies to the nonprofit sector, especially those institutions seeking greater government control over others on the naive assumption that they themselves will not one day also get the chop.

• Kane-Berman is CE of the South African Institute of Race Relations.