A man shouts his objections during a protest against the Protection of State Information Bill outside Parliament in Cape Town on Saturday 17 September this year.

“Ordinary” citizens – in rural areas, not cities – are to be consulted on the Protection of State Information Bill before the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) accepts or rejects the contested piece of legislation, ANC MP Johannes Tau has said.

The bill entered the next phase of its passage through the parliamentary system on Wednesday when Tau was elected unopposed to chair the ad hoc committee established by the NCOP to deal with the bill.

The committee had set itself a deadline of April to complete its work, but would not be “mechanical” about meeting this deadline, Tau said.

Tau told journalists in Cape Town that the multiparty committee – and the NCOP – would not “rubber-stamp” the bill, but would invite submissions from interested parties during its deliberations.

He also gave the assurance that the committee would hold public hearings on the bill and, if necessary and time allowed, would travel to all nine provinces to hear what “ordinary citizens” thought of it.

“And of course when I say all provinces, I don’t mean the big cities. We want to reach out to ordinary citizens,” he said.

Asked why urban residents would be sidelined, Tau said the debate about the bill had been dominated by “elites”.

“If you look at the nature and level of the debate, it has been highly, highly elite.

“It has been a process that has been de-linked from the ordinary citizen. So that is where, as the NCOP, we would want to push our energy towards – to ensure that our ordinary people on the ground understand what this piece of legislation is all about.”

Asked what he understood the bill to be about, Tau said his committee would have to be briefed on the “objectives and everything of the bill”.

But his “basic understanding” was that the bill “is in the main to protect state information”.

Tau implied that citizens were confused by the public debate about the bill and by the “many different messages” being communicated.

“So it would be in our interests to ensure that whatever product we arrive at as the NCOP is a product that is understood by that ordinary South African,” he said.

To fulfil its mandate of representing the interests of provinces, the NCOP would “engage with ordinary citizens on how they feel, how they see the bill, how the bill is going to impact on them and what their views are”.

At the end of the NCOP process, the House may concur with the bill as it stands, in which case it would go directly to President Jacob Zuma for his signature, or it may propose amendments before referring it back to the National Assembly.

As the bill is classified as a Section 75 bill – an ordinary bill that does not affect the provinces – the National Assembly may choose to ignore any NCOP amendments and pass it as it stands. Only in the case of a Section 76 bill – an ordinary bill affecting provinces – does the constitution require agreement between the two Houses.

The National Assembly passed the bill in November with 229 votes in favour and 107 against, despite unprecedented unity among opposition parties – and a well-publicised civil society campaign – to oppose it.

The DA said it would push for the “broadest possible public participation in the deliberations on the bill”. It called on Tau to “produce a detailed public participation plan” as required by NCOP rules.

 

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has said he was told the NCOP process would “open the space” for amendments.

While Cosatu was “unequivocally opposed to acts of espionage or activities that are hostile to the state”, it was “concerned that relevant provisions in the bill are capable of such broad interpretation that it would have the effect of imposing criminal responsibility on whistle-blowers who disclose information in the public interest”. - Political Bureau