AN eleventh-hour appeal to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe yesterday asked him to intervene to forestall today’s National Assembly vote on the Protection of State Information Bill, while the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) urged MPs not to support it.
The Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) wrote to Motlanthe in his capacity as leader of government business in Parliament, raising concerns not only about the bill, but also the apparent failure of the further consultation process promised by the ANC after it temporarily shelved the bill in September.
Print and broadcast media editors were due to fly to Cape Town from across the country to be present in the public gallery for today’s sitting at 2pm.
The Right2Know campaign has planned protests outside Parliament and elsewhere in the country, while the National Press Club called for people to wear black in symbolic protest against what it called “Black Tuesday”.
Given the ANC’s majority, the bill is likely to be passed. The ruling party’s MPs are under a three-line whip for the vote. This does not mean the bill becomes law, however, as it must first be referred to the National Council of Provinces, which has the power to start a fresh round of public consultation and also to make amendments.
Cosatu affiliate, the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), added its voice to the outcry yesterday.
“The bill is not ready to be signed into law and is set to negatively impact the noble fight against corruption,” it said.
Municipal workers had been victimised and in some cases, physically attacked for exposing corruption in local government that robbed the poor of desperately needed services, Samwu spokesman Tahir Sema said.
“But our members were only able to expose the crooked tenderpreneurs, the rampant cronyism, politically convenient manoeuvring and nepotism by having access to documents, and being able to use them to alert greater authorities that malpractices were being committed.
“If the Protection of State Information Bill is signed into law, it will not only enable a whole range of municipal documents to be classified as secret, but will also serve to protect those who are misusing their positions for private and nefarious gain,” Sema said.
Western Cape Right2Know campaign co-ordinator, Nkwame Cedile, said South Africans shouldn’t “sit back and allow this to happen”.
“Section 32 in our Constitution clearly states that the public has a right to be informed.”
In its letter sent to all MPs yesterday, Sanef acknowledged the important work done over the past 18 months by MPs to substantially improve the bill.
But it said the changes had not gone far enough to “render the bill safe for democracy”.
In its current form, the bill “represents an attack on principles of open democracy that are deeply embedded in our
constitution and our national life”.
“It will limit the work of government departments, Chapter Nine institutions, Parliament, trade unions, the media, and civil society by choking off the flow of vital information, and restricting crucial accountability mechanisms.”
Chief among several remaining flaws in the bill was the absence of a public interest defence, “crucial to ensuring that the bill does not become an instrument to suppress information that may reveal serious wrongdoing”.
“Also of serious concern is the blanket secrecy afforded our powerful and important intelligence structures, secrecy that shields excessively from scrutiny, and leaves little recourse when they abuse their considerable authority.
“We recognise the need for a reformed legislative regime to govern the management of sensitive state information.
“You now have an opportunity to ensure that such legislation advances our democracy, rather than injuring it,” Sanef told MPs.
“The first step is to reject the bill by voting against it in the National Assembly tomorrow.”
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has also weighed in. Her spokeswoman, Kgalelo Masibi, said that Madonsela had written a letter to the National Assembly Speaker, Max Sisulu, “alerting him to the numerous concerns raised with her”, with special emphasis on the absence of a public interest defence.
“The public protector cannot investigate legislative acts as her jurisdiction is (government) maladministration,” Masibi said. “Should Parliament approve the bill unaltered, the public protector will forward the concerns (raised with her) to the president.”
l Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said: “It is insulting to be asked to stomach legislation that makes the state answerable only to the state. I appeal to our MPs: please hear the disquiet, the warnings.”
l Abahlali baseMjondolo chairman Sbu Zikode said: “This bill will take South Africa back to the dark days of apartheid. Abahlali will not allow the government to protect corruption.”
l AfriForum deputy chief executive Ernst Roets said: “If this bill is passed, any claims that South Africa is a healthy democracy will be void of credibility.”