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A Crutch called a Comma

by Sean O'Toole / 19.08.2010

Sometimes, although not all that frequently, I find myself wondering, which is, perhaps, in the context of Mahala, a better word to use here than ruminating – more modern, less UCT English Honours – why it is that contributors to this online publication (or possibly ‘zine, but you can call it a blog too) all seem to write in perpetual fear of the comma, that standard issue punctuation mark which, when I last checked, is not endangered, threatened or otherwise proscribed by the terms of the proposed Protection of Information Bill [B 6—2010], a contested piece of legislation that in Chapter 11, Section 37 uses a total of eight graphically familiar curls in its warning to media owners at large that, “Any person who attempts, conspires with any other person, or aids, abets, induces, instigates, instructs or commands, counsels or procures another person to commit an offence in terms of this Act, is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to the punishment to which a person convicted of actually committing that offence would be liable.”

In a memorandum attached to the bill, its authors, writing without once leaning on that crutch called a comma (gasp!), explain that the proposed Bill “will ensure a coherent approach to protection of State information and the classification and declassification of State information and will create a legislative framework for the State to respond to espionage and other associated hostile activities.”

Whatever, many in civil society have responded, often resorting in private to the use of more colourful expletives, which, as Mahala’s readers will likely by know by now, don’t require pauses – or commas.

“Transparency and the access to information is fundamental to democratic governance,” states crime writer and SA PEN vice president Margie Orford in a recent statement issued by the South African chapter of International PEN, a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers. “The South African constitution states that ‘everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state… that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.’ The draft Protection of Information Bill, flawed in multiple ways, subordinates this constitutionally enshrined transparency to a broadly and vaguely defined ‘national interest’.”

Post script: Mahala’s crime genre write-a-likes might be intrigued to learn that Orford isn’t afraid of the comma. In her 2006 novel, Like Clockwork, she uses two commas in her opening sentence. Gasp, again.

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