Aluta continua! Secrecy bill opponents look to Zuma

23 November 2011 - 02:14 By CAIPHUS KGOSANA and ANNA MAJAVU
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Opposition parties have tried desperately to stop the National Assembly from voting on the contentious Protection of State Information Bill but failed.

MPs from all the opposition parties united against the ANC to try to stop the bill being passed.

Their efforts included attempts to change the National Assembly programme to remove any planned discussions on the bill.

They also argued that parliament had broken its own rules and overextended its mandate in its discussions on the bill. But they failed on this score too.

Later, they made passionate presentations against the bill, but these, too, failed to convince the ANC and in the end it came down to the dreaded vote. ANC MPs, who had been summoned to the National Assembly en masse, voted to pass the bill by 229 votes, against 107. There were two abstentions.

Impassioned pleas from media organisations, unions, civil society and other interest groups opposed to the proposed law had fallen on deaf ears.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the public protector and the SA Human Rights Commission had also expressed concerns about the bill.

After the bill was passed, editors, journalists and activists - wearing black clothes to symbolise the "death of democracy" on what was dubbed Black Tuesday - left the National Assembly chamber in silent protest.

"We are broken inside," said SA National Editors' Forum chairman Mondli Makhanya.

"We never thought there would come a day when we would come here to parliament dressed in black to actually witness this constitution of ours being betrayed."

He said the media would take the battle forward, with trade unions, civil society, academics and religious organisations.

"We will go to the highest court in the land should [President Jacob] Zuma sign it, but we hope that even he will see reason and not sign it when it eventually comes before him," Makhanya said.

The ANCdefended its approval of the bill, which it said was "essentially a security bill - not a media bill - aimed at protecting the national security of the country".

The controversial draft law, which criminalises the possession and publication of classified state information, has now been referred to the National Council of Provinces for discussion. If that house passes it, only the signature of Zuma will be needed to make it law.

Those who object to the bill in its current form hope Zuma will refer it back to parliament or for screening by the Constitutional Court to determine its legality, before signing it.

DA chief whip Watty Watson kicked off an afternoon of high drama in the National Assembly when he introduced a motion without notice, asking parliament to remove from its programme the planned vote on the bill. He was supported by the IFP and COPE, but ANC MPs heckled loudly in disagreement.

The matter was put to the first vote of the afternoon. The ANC won the first round with 222 against 107 votes. There were two abstentions.

When the report of the ad-hoc committee was finally adopted, the IFP's Mario Ambrosini - who had tried to delay the passage of the bill last week by introducing 123 extra amendments - stood up to argue that parliament had overstretched its mandate in processing the bill. "It contains provisions that are beyond the legislative competence of the National Assembly. The bill [legislates] in respect of provincial archives, which are an exclusive provincial competence," he said.

When this, too, failed, opposition parties made strong declarations against the draft law.

DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko described the bill as an attempt to criminalise hard-won freedoms and said her party would lead its challenge in the Constitutional Court if it got to that stage. "If passed, this bill will unstitch the fabric of our constitution. It will criminalise the freedoms that so many of our people fought for. What will you, the members on that side of the House, tell your grandchildren one day?" she said.

"I know you will tell them that you fought for freedom. But will you also tell them you helped to destroy it? Because they will pay the price for your actions today. Let this weigh heavy on your conscience as you cast your vote. The ANC has abandoned the values of its founders exactly 100 years after it was formed."

Joe McGluwa of the Independent Democrats warned ANC MPs that they would one day regret their support of the bill.

PAC president Letlapa Mphahlele said the proposed law would, if passed, turn South Africa into a "banana republic".

ANC MP Luwellyn Landers - who chaired the ad-hoc committee that processed the bill - dismissed arguments for the insertion of a public interest clause, saying the bill contained the same public-interest defence mechanism as the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

The new secrecy law would remove PW Botha's 1982 Protection of Information Act from the statute books, Landers said.

But IFP chief whip Koos van der Merwe pointed out that when Botha enacted his secrecy laws in 1982, Landers himself had been a National Party member and a deputy minister in Botha's apartheid cabinet.

The SAHRC said: "South Africa's constitutional democracy demands that the impact of legislation that could potentially unfairly limit basic rights be approached with extreme caution."

The passage of the bill made international headlines with the New York Times describing it as "a new secrecy law that critics say is designed to shield a corrupt elite from press scrutiny".

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