A public hearing into the proposed Protection of State Information Bill in Mamelodi on Tuesday took a different turn when residents used it to raise problems over service delivery.
Some residents complained that they had not been given enough information about the bill but were expected to make up their minds about it. Others said whether the bill was passed or not would make no difference in their lives with one resident loudly pronouncing “an empty stomach knows no law”.
Committee members of the National Council of Provinces looking into the bill had to remind the crowd that the hearings were held particularly for the bill and not for service delivery issues, but to no avail.
Issues raised included problems with RDP housing, electricity meters, lack of water and problems with identity documents.
Some residents did comment on the bill, but it was clear that many were clueless about the bill and its contents.
However, some spoke in favour of the bill, saying secrets of the state had to be protected, while others were against it, saying it would help politicians to hide corruption.
Joseph Masiteng said if the bill meant that the country’s sensitive information would be protected then the bill had to passed as soon as possible.
“We have the public protector to protect us against officials’ corruption, but our secrets must be safe and protected,” Masiteng said.
ANC supporter Issac Mpontsho said he would only support the bill if it would not “take us back to apartheid”.
“I still remember the days when we read The World newspaper under the carpets. We do not have enough information on this bill and it should not keep information away from us,” he said.
The DA’s Gauteng North chairman, Solly Msimanga, was heckled when he suggested some residents had been bused to the venue with the promise of T-shirts and lunch.
Msimanga withdrew his statement and apologised but told the Pretoria News that he had asked some residents if they knew the purpose of the meeting.
“That is what I was told when I asked if they knew why they were here,” he said.
Msimanga also made a submission to the NCOP, saying if the bill was passed in its current form it would take the country back to the apartheid days.
“The bill criminalises the possession and disclosure of classified documents, even if the contents of the documents reveal wrongdoing, and exposing the contents of the documents would be in the public interest.
Journalists and whistle-blowers who report on what the government deems secret will face up to 25 years in prison.
“It will be illegal to expose even corruption and serious crime,” said Msimanga.
National Press Club chairman Yusuf Abramjee also made a submission to the NCOP, warning the committee that editors were prepared to go to jail in opposition of the bill.
Among the critical issues he raised about the bill was the lack of a public interest defence clause and the widespread powers given to officials to classify information.
“Officials, including junior public servants, and members of security services are authorised to classify documents with the authority of heads of department.
“This is in conflict with a clause that stipulates that it needs to be classified on a senior level,” he said.
Abramjee also criticised earlier comments by various people supporting the bill about the absence of a public defence clause.
“To suggest that other countries don’t have it is not accurate. They don’t need it because of the various laws they have in place.
“We appeal to the NCOP to consider including a public interest clause in line with the spirit of our constitution,” Abramjee said. - Pretoria News