Debate on secrecy Bill delayed


The scheduled debate on the Protection of State Information Bill will be delayed by a week to next Wednesday, African National Congress (ANC) MP Luwellyn Landers says.

He said that in this interval, the ad hoc committee that drafted the legislation would be reconvened to consider a technical issue and a set of new proposals, both raised by Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini. “Apparently he demanded that legally the ad hoc committee must approve minutes,” Landers said.
“We thought that since there is already talk of a Constitutional Court challenge it is better to err on the side of safety.” The committee is expected to meet on Thursday, the South African Press Association reports.

The ANC plans to finalise the controversial Bill before the end of November, despite the party’s announcement that it would sound out public opinion on the legislation first. The ruling party withdrew the Bill from the parliamentary programme several weeks ago, citing the need for further consultation. Provincial legislatures were to have been at the centre of the consultation, with “regional people’s assemblies” being held on the Bill and the COP17 climate change conference. However, it is understood that the party has only consulted members internally.

Announcing the withdrawal in September, ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga said the consultations would involve ANC MPs taking the Bill to the people in constituency work, further discussion in the ANC and with other political parties, and “engaging views from the broader society”. He said that despite extensive consultations and improvements in the legislation, “there are still interested parties who need further hearing as well as other parties who have made late submissions. The ANC is of the view that these voices should be heard.”

Internal ANC correspondence reveals that by October 24, most of those appointed to reach out to communities had themselves not been briefed about the contents of the Bill. Silverton Ntushelo, the ANC’s information Bill office coordinator, wrote to five provincial chief whips on October 24, reminding them to submit dates for the inter-parliamentary caucuses, where the briefing would occur. “This process of consultations on the Protection of State Information Bill should be finalised as soon as possible so that Parliament can finish everything before the end of November 2011,” he wrote in the email.

An earlier letter from ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe invited provincial secretaries of the ANC, speakers of provincial legislatures, chief whips, the speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly, and the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the National Council of Provinces to a consultative meeting on the Bill at OR Tambo International Airport on October 3.

The letter stated that debate over the Bill and reasons for its postponement “awakened” the ANC to its internal limitations. “However, the ANC believes that the current situation, which led to the postponement of the passing of the Bill, should be viewed within the broader context, including the battle of ideas and the contestation for hegemony in a democratic dispensation,” he added. He invited recipients to a consultative meeting to prepare for regional peoples’ assemblies.

After withdrawing the Bill from the parliamentary programme Motshekga said the ANC had established an information Bill committee responsible for coordinating public engagement with civil society, non-governmental and community-based organisations and interested individuals.

At a meeting with Parliament’s Press Gallery Association last week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe hinted that the Bill might be amended to include a public interest defence clause.

He pledged that “the ANC will not use its numbers to ram through, willy-nilly, any piece of legislation that doesn’t comply with the Constitution”.