A Swiss organisation in South Africa has questioned the government's motives behind the proposed Protection of State Information Bill in light of increasing allegations of corruption.
SwissCham Southern Africa president Jürg Schalch said the organisation, which represents companies including Nestle, Credit Suisse, Swiss Re and UBS, welcomed that the bill had been withdrawn “albeit temporarily” for further consultation.
“We are concerned, however, that the envisaged consultations will take place not through the formal parliamentary committee... but via an internal party (African National Congress) committee,” he said in a statement posted on their website on Monday.
“... By doing so, such consultations are circumventing the public element indispensable to any democratic process.”
Schalch said far too little had been done to allay fears of the weakening of journalists’ and whistle-blowers’ rights and abilities to expose corruption and malfeasance even if in so doing they made use of classified information.
“To introduce legislation of this kind at a time of mounting allegations of corruption and lack of accountability inevitably prompts the question of whether there is something that needs to be hidden.”
It said the bill, if enacted, would erode “checks and balances” vital for fostering foreign business investment.
This was particularly relevant since Switzerland was the fifth most important trading partner with South Africa, said Schalch.
“South Africa’s business environment has, in recent years, been considered a less attractive prospect for investment because of perceptions of over-regulation, uncertainties over property rights, an unbalanced labour law and frequent strikes which often turn violent.”
Schalch said this would put any chamber of commerce, which was focusing on fostering of bilateral business relations and promoting foreign direct investments in a challenging position.
“Added to these already negative perceptions, a bill that allows for the suppression of vital information and the erosion of press freedom will serve only to lessen the appetite for doing business in the country and for using it as a base to expand into other parts of the continent,” he said.
The proposed bill was also an insult to the idea of democracy.
“To imprison anyone for having the courage to speak out in the public interest is an intolerable affront to democratic values,” said Schalch.
Last month, ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga withdrew the bill from the National Assembly programme and set up a task team to oversee a consultation process.
However, this has been criticised by opposition members of Parliament because the task team was not made of multi-party members but purely ANC ones.
Interested parties were also only allowed to make submissions and it was therefore not open for public debate, critics argued.
The bill encountered a wall of opposition when it was first introduced, with critics calling it a return to apartheid-era repression.
Critics also argue that the bill is at odds with the progressive underpinnings of Protection of Access to Information Act and that a public interest defence is needed to protect whistle-blowers and the journalists who expose state wrongdoing. - Sapa