Durban - The eThekwini council has - by a majority vote - approved a controversial by-law which may effectively bar the media and the public from attending some crucial meetings of council committees.
The council held a vote on the matter on Wednesday despite renewed protests from the opposition and civil-society formations.
The adoption of the amendments to the rule of order by-law means the speaker and committee chairpersons can now restrict public and media access to executive committee (Exco) meetings in cases where matters deemed sensitive are to be discussed.
On Wednesday, critics of the altered by-law described it as unconstitutional, warning that the amendments would lead to council business being shrouded in secrecy and also that it could shield the corrupt.
On Wednesday’s vote, however, meant Exco was now able to close its meetings to the public where:
* There might be disclosure of confidential information regarding any person to the public.
* Any investigation, report or internal audit report which, in the course of consideration, could be compromised by its public disclosure.
* There might be disclosure of any trade secrets of the municipality or financial, business, scientific or technical information other than trade secrets which are likely to cause prejudice to the business or interests of the municipality.
However, some civil-society formations that have been outspoken on the issue are not taking the matter lying down and have threatened to go to court over it.
Activists from Right2Know, Ubunye bamaHostela and the Active Citizens Movement demonstrated outside the ICC on Wednesday, where the council meeting was held.
They were later prevented from attending the council sitting, with Speaker William Mapena saying there were not enough chairs in the public gallery to accommodate all of them.
“There are limitations to everything. No one is barred from the meeting,” Mapena said after the opposition challenged him on this.
“The meetings are open to the public. We cannot bar the doors of the council meeting because the ICC does not have enough chairs,” DA councillor Nicole Graham protested.
Desmond D’sa, one of the activists who protested outside the ICC, said the civil-society groupings were consulting lawyers with a view to challenging the by-law in court.
“We are definitely going to be exploring other avenues, and one of them is going to court. We do not think these will pass the constitutional muster,” said D’sa.
Echoing these sentiments was Ben Madokwe of the Active Citizens Movement, who said his organisation was prepared to take the matter all the way to the Constitutional Court.
“The adoption of this by-law means we as a society have regressed back to an oppressive, unconstitutional regime similar to that of the apartheid era. Furthermore, this bill is not for the benefit of the citizens of eThekwini, but to protect corrupt municipal officials.”
Inside the council chamber, a heated debate erupted between members of the ANC and the opposition when the matter came up for adoption.
The DA tried unsuccessfully to push for another debate on the amendments before any voting could be done, but Mapena would have none of it, saying the issue was only “up for voting on”.
“The issue was not deferred to this meeting for reconfiguration. We deferred for voting,” he said.
The DA protested, with its councillors saying Mapena was misinterpreting the rules.
Graham later said the DA was considering its options, and this would include a legal challenge. She said some of the clauses were definitely unconstitutional.
The city, however, said it was incorrect to refer to the by-law as unconstitutional and that there was nothing untoward about it.
“Section 160 of the constitution as well as section 20 of the Municipal Systems Act provide clear guidelines for holding municipal meetings.
“Both legislations state that a municipal committee or council must open their meetings to the public.
“However, the legislation further provides for certain meetings to be closed to the public subject to the nature of the issues being discussed.
“The city has proactively amended the rules of order by specifying under what circumstances the meetings would be closed to the public,” the city said in a statement.
ANC councillors, supported by some smaller parties such as the MF, the AIC, DLC and TA, voted in favour of the adoption, while the DA voted against.