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Cape Town - A debate on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill was punctuated by a discussion on commas and the phrase “in particular”, as the ANC used its majority to sweep off the table an opposition request to ask President Jacob Zuma to clarify two sections of the bill.
With a vote of seven to four, the ANC ensured the parliamentary ad hoc committee limited itself to two technical areas in need of remedy in the draft law:
* Replacing an incorrect cross-reference which refers to another clause in section 42.
* Introducing the phrase “liable to punishment” in section 45 which seeks to criminalise the classification of information to conceal corruption and to protect whistle-blowers who expose a cover-up.
At the heart of the opposition parties’ argument was a presidential comma and the phrase “in particular” in his letter to Parliament last month asking it to reconsider the bill.
In that communication Zuma said the national legislature should reconsider “sections of the bill, in particular sections 42 and 45” as they lacked meaning and were unconstitutional.
When ad hoc committee chairman Cecil Burgess asked opposition MPs whether “it would be incorrect to assume the president and his legal team understood the law”, DA MP Dene Smuts took exception, saying the president’s legal advisers could have been mistaken: “If you are suggesting the president is above the law, we can’t operate like this,” she added.
Smuts pointed out it was the letter she and ACDP MP Steve Swart sent to Zuma that led to the bill being referred back to Parliament. “In the absence of such clarity by the president, it is our submission we can’t proceed,” he said.
Swart argued it was “a straightforward” issue to obtain clarity from the president: if he replied he only meant two sections the committee could proceed; if there were other sections, then the committee would also have to look at those. An hour and 15 minutes’ discussion on commas, the phrase “in particular” and an impassioned plea by IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini that the whole bill should be reconsidered followed. “I feel like crying. It’s an embarrassment,” he said.
ANC MPs said it was time to end the debate. Although they said a vote was not the preferred option, that’s what it came down to. With three motions on the table - the ANC’s motion to proceed with technical amendments to two sections, the DA’s request for clarity from the president, and the IFP’s motion for a wholesale review - it went to the vote. The seven ANC members carried their proposal.
Earlier, state law adviser Enver Daniels told the committee that because only sections 42 and 45 were specifically mentioned, the deliberations were limited to those two and he proposed the technical amendments.
The proposals were not available in writing and, after a request that the state law adviser’s office and all political parties submit their suggestions on section 45, the committee adjourned.
The amendments are expected to be passed today.