There was an opportunity to end the tortuous debate on a high note. But MPs on a National Council of Provinces panel tussled to the last, controversially passing the latest version of the Protection of State Information Bill amid a walkout by some of them.
This disappointing moment on Tuesday was in keeping with the entire passage of the proposed secrecy law. And the turbulence will no doubt go on as the full chamber votes on it today, then passes it back to the National Assembly to review the changes it has made.
Opposition MPs balked at voting on a 22-page report on the committee’s changes with less than 30 minutes to study them. Rightly so – it made 800 changes to the bill over almost 11 months.
So there was a lot to read. Some of those amendments were hugely important, bearing directly on hard-won South African freedoms. The protesters were justified in having no truck with it.
ANC lawmakers presented it as a victory for good lawmaking. The committee chairman, Raseriti Tau, believed fierce rejection of the bill was based on half-truths, distortions and “mischievous political deportment”.
If this was so, why so many changes to it? And why a heap of crucial changes in the National Assembly’s deliberations before the bill even reached Tau’s panel?
The ANC and its law advisers have all along promoted this as sound legislation. It is not. It took civil society and a dogged campaign over years to show them its glaring flaws, and the damage they inflicted. But they heeded only part of the advice.
Democracy in action though it was, the fight exposed weaknesses, raising questions about the ability of most MPs to thoroughly interrogate laws they are expected to craft and pass in keeping with our constitution.
Tau thanked all who participated in “one of the most elaborate public consultation processes in our Parliament”. But the many dissenting voices that were ignored will feel no gratitude for what, to them, was an empty acknowledgement.