The controversial SA Weather Services Amendment Bill that sparked a storm of protest when it was introduced in January, has been withdrawn.
The bill had initially included draconian penalties for unauthorised or false severe weather alerts, with fines of up to R10 million and 10 years in jail for people who issued such warnings without written permission from the national weather service.
Environmental groups slammed the proposals, saying they would limit people’s ability to share information on severe weather events.
However, Johnny de Lange, chairman of the National Assembly’s environmental affairs portfolio committee, which was overseeing the processing of the bill, subsequently gave assurances that controversial wording would be excised, amended or replaced, and that non-official forecasting services provided by niche-supported weather data providers were not under threat.
And responding to the severe criticism, the Department of Environmental Affairs indicated that Parliament was “highly likely” to call for a review.
Its officials pointed out that unauthorised weather alerts had been illegal since the SA Weather Service Act had come into force more than a decade ago, and said the public outcry had only erupted in response to their efforts to make the existing law enforceable and to attach “criminal consequences” to offenses.
“These provisions are a sincere attempt to ensure that all South Africans are protected against false, misleading and/or hoax warnings that can result, and have resulted, in undue public panic, related stress and injury, evacuations and/or the mobilisation of emergency services and the subsequent fruitless and wasteful expenditure,” the department said at the time.
De Lange’s committee held well-attended public hearings on the bill, also in January.
The withdrawal of the bill was gazetted last month.
DA environment spokesman and committee member Gareth Morgan said this week the draft law was “certainly highly controversial and poorly drafted”, but pointed out that the portfolio committee had set about redrafting it into an acceptable form.
“It’s evident that the bill attracted substantially more interest from stakeholders when Parliament ran public hearings compared to when the minister (Edna Molewa) put it out for public comment,” he said.
“She will now have to redraft the bill and resubmit it to Parliament, and I trust she will take into account the submissions to Parliament.”
De Lange referred queries about the withdrawal of the amended act to the department, which had not replied at the time of going to press.
“False alarms” about severe weather events cited earlier this year by the Department of Environmental Affairs and provided courtesy of the SA Weather Service:
1984 - while tropical cyclone Demoina was destroying parts of the Mpumalanga Lowveld on its way to northern KwaZulu-Natal, “unfounded rumours” were spread that it was going to hit Pretoria, leading to “widespread panic”.
1990s - a “rumour” was spread, based on an “erroneous interpretation” of a radar image, that a severe thunderstorm was going to hit Pietermaritzburg, again causing “panic” and even “threats of evacuation”. In reality the storm moved far north of the city, as predicted by the Weather Service forecasters.
2007 - a severe storm warning for parts of Gauteng was “exaggerated” by a member of the public to a tornado warning without confirming this “unfounded interpretation” with the Weather Service. This resulted in the early closure of schools and “congestion and disruption”.
2011 - a “malicious e-mail” was disseminated with a copied satellite image of Hurricane Katrina and bearing a News24 logo, claiming that a “huge tornado” was going to hit Gauteng over the weekend - just after the devastating Duduza tornado. This message was later modified with a different header.
2011 - a message was distributed on a website that a tornado would hit Mossel Bay. “Needless to say, no severe weather occurred at all.” - Cape Argus