MPs to engage public on “secrecy” Bill


Parliament’s ad hoc committee looking into the highly controversial Protection of State Information Bill has adopted an ambitious public hearing drive aimed at getting maximum input from as many South Africans as possible.

The Bill, which has drawn much interest and debate from across the country, was approved by a majority vote in the National Assembly late last year. It has now been passed to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) for further scrutiny before it is sent to President Jacob Zuma for his signature into law, the state BuaNews agency reports.

Committee Chair Raseriti Tau said yesterday they would not “rubber stamp” the National Assembly decision. He said they were taking the process seriously with the aim of “deepening democracy. “The only way to do [that] is to reach out to the people,” he said.

Tau, who was positive about the public hearings, said they would take on board the views of as many people as possible. Two programmes have been drawn up by the committee, one for public meetings to be held at Parliament and another for public meetings to be held in all nine provinces, with a focus on both rural and urban settings.

Tau said his team of 15 MPs would be split into three groups to allow for multiple meetings to be held concurrently. The process is meant garner what people know about the bill, as well as tell them what it is about. Advertisements for public submission on the bill are expected to be published today.

The Department of State Security has been scheduled to brief the committee on the bill next Tuesday, thereafter the public hearing meetings will commence. The committee hopes to have wrapped them up by the end of April.

Asked whether the committee would meet its deadline, Tau said it was going to be a challenge but they would make it. In the event that they fail to complete on time, they will seek an extension of the deadline through a resolution in the NCOP. All the committee members seemed to agree on the action plan. However, opposition Congress of the People party (Cope) MP Dennis Bloem said he did not want the hearings to turn into rallies. Tau challenged him by saying that the committee wanted as many people to attend the hearings as that was the aim of the process.

The opposition Democratic Alliance also disagreed. KwaZulu-Natal DA NCOP member Alf Lees in a statement today said the draft programme “raises serious concerns that need to be addressed before it is finalised.” According to Lees, shortcomings include the “arbitrary selection of 16 district and two metropolitan municipalities for public hearings without consideration for a proper balance between rural and urban areas. Major urban townships like Soweto, Umlazi, Gugulethu and Manenberg were simply left out.”

Lees also sees an insufficient number of public hearings in provinces with large populations, including KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Western Cape as well as inadequate opportunity for oral submissions by key industry, media and civil society stakeholders to the committee. Th MP is further concerned about the limited time for committee deliberations on the public hearings and submissions.
“I will therefore formally request that the final programme includes an additional opportunity for public hearings specifically for the metros of Johannesburg or Tshwane, eThekwini and the City of Cape Town. The opportunity for oral submissions to the committee needs to be extended as well, along with the time allocated for the committee’s deliberations on the views of South Africans. The Chairperson must also provide the committee with mechanisms that will ensure public participation on the Bill is not a sham.
“A clear schedule must be provided that indicates advertising plans for public hearings in local newspapers and on community radio stations. The public hearings must be accessible and widely publicised. All South Africans – no matter where they live – have a right to have their voices heard in this debate. The NCOP committee has a duty to ensure that ordinary citizens, both in rural and urban South Africa, are well informed and consulted on the Bill and its potential impact on their lives.

Reuters last November reported critics said the Bill harmed the nation’s credibility on tackling corruption and would intimidate those who try to expose it. The ruling African National Congress said the Bill, passed the National Assembly with a vote of 229 in favour and 107 against, is essential for protecting state information and keeping spies at bay. The extent of espionage in SA is unknown.

The press has criticised the legislation as an attempt to silence whistleblowers and muzzle investigative journalists, who now face up to 25 years in jail for revealing state secrets. A joint editorial in the country’s largest newspapers on the day of the vote called the ballot South Africa’s “day of reckoning for democracy. The spreading culture of self-enrichment, either corrupt, or merely inappropriate, makes scrutiny fuelled by whistleblowers who have the public interest at heart more essential than ever since 1994,” the front-page editorial said.

The Bill has a broad definition of valuable information and gives great authority on classification to State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, who faced calls for his resignation after his wife was convicted in May of running an international drug ring. He said he was unaware of her criminal career.