Cape Town - Emotions ran high as MPs took on each other over the dreaded Protection of State Information Bill, which was passed by an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly on Thursday.
After years of deliberations on the bill, also known as the Secrecy Bill, Parliament finally voted on the legislation after several amendments because of objections about its constitutionality.
A total of 190 members voted in favour of the bill and 75 against it.
There was only one abstention.
The bill will now go to President Jacob Zuma for a final decision.
This could be one of the last chances for those opposed to the bill as they call on Zuma to send the legislation to the Constitutional Court for a review before he finalises it.
The passing of the bill has also left the government open to a Constitutional Court challenge from the Right2Know campaign that wants certain clauses included.
IFP MP Mario Ambrosini – who left his hospital bed after a medical procedure to be in Parliament – voiced the loudest opposition to the bill when he took to the podium. He pleaded with ANC members to vote against the bill.
“If you do not vote on conscience then it is the end of democracy. This is not how this Parliament must operate,” he said. Ambrosini told the house that certain ANC members had told him that “this is a bad bill”.
An angry Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota objected to insinuations that he was a foreign agent.
This was after ANC MP Luwellyn Landers said “people who freely walk these halls will have to declare their status as agents”.
Landers said not for a single instance did he suggest Lekota or any member was a foreign agent. On threats of a Constitutional Court challenge, Landers said: “We’ll meet you on the (Constitution) Hill.”
Amid shouting and jeering, Cope MP Papi Kganare had to be instructed to take his seat several times and was even instructed to withdraw his statement that State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele was “deliberately misleading” the house. Cwele asked whether Cope “is here to assist foreign spies?”
Cwele said before the adoption of the bill that he was confident it had addressed people’s concerns.
“The main objective of the bill remains to protect vulnerable state information against alteration, loss or destruction, which will ensure that our citizens are not denied their rights.”
By repealing the apartheid classification act of 1992 and criminalising espionage, the bill “would contribute to an improved national security status of the Republic”, the State Security Department said.
DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said the fight to stop the bill was not over.
The danger of this bill was that its provisions “could have shielded those who engage in corruption and shady acts”, she said.
“It was also tabled within the context of a revived securocrat state,” said Mazibuko.
The DA would seek a legal opinion from senior counsel on the constitutionality of the entire bill, she said.
“And if the majority party passes this bill today, we will petition the honourable president to send the bill back to the National Assembly under section 79 of the constitution,” said Mazibuko.
Cwele said Mazibuko was not clear as to what was unconstitutional about the bill, especially assertions that the bill encroached on provincial competencies such as taking control of provincial archives.
The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) changes made by the National Council of Provinces had improved the proposed legislation in important ways, “but they do not go far enough”, the forum said.
“The bill still has the potential to be used as an instrument of secrecy in a democracy that can only thrive in a climate of openness,” it said.
Zuma had the option to refer it to the Constitutional Court, it added.
“Sanef is ready to participate in such a court process. In the absence of a process initiated by Parliament or the president we will make application for a court review,” it said.
ANC veteran MP Professor Ben Turok, who was disciplined by the party for opposing the bill, said he had had several enquiries on whether he should “once again” decline to vote in support of the bill. He listed six reasons why he had had a change of heart, one of them “meant as a protest against what I considered an obnoxious bill”.
“A protest is just that, it is not more than that. An individual action has limited effect. Because of the tortuous passage of the bill through the NCOP, I’ve been unable to track all the changes.
“This is no excuse, as I have a responsibility to know what I vote for, but there are limits to how much ground one can cover,” said Turok.
He said he was briefed by colleagues on the changes to the bill and was “assured that they are qualitative, not superficial”.
The office of ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga, who was reflected as voting against the bill, welcomed the passing of the bill.
Motshekga’s spokesman Moloto Mothapo said the voting register had a “technical error” and Motshekga did not vote against the bill.
Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Font Plus said the fact that the bill had to be “panel-beated” so many times was testimony that the ANC did not have “the most innocent of intentions”.