DA waiting for clarity from Zuma on secrecy bill

2013-10-03 16:50

President Jacob Zuma has failed to respond to a letter demanding to know the extent of the pending review of the Protection of State Information Bill, the DA has said.

“We have not had a response and we are very worried because we need clarity on the issue,” Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said today.

She wrote to Zuma in mid-September after he refused to sign the contentious official secrets bill into law, saying some sections were unconstitutional. He sent it back to Parliament for revision.

At issue is whether the president gave MPs carte blanche to amend the bill, or intended that they confine themselves to correcting technicalities in sections 42 and 45.

The DA and lobby groups who oppose the bill say the president’s letter of referral to the legislature was ambiguous.

It stated that he was asking for a review “insofar as sections of the bill, in particular sections 42 and 45, lack meaning and coherence, consequently are irrational and accordingly unconstitutional”.

DA MP Dene Smuts, who was involved in the drafting process and would serve on the ad hoc committee reviewing the bill, said the wording was vague and this posed a constitutional problem.

Zuma invoked section 79 of the Constitution when he sent the bill back to Parliament. However, parliamentary joint rule 203 states that in such an instance, the legislature could only concern itself with the sections of the bill president referred for reconsideration.

Said Smuts recently: “It is not clear what he meant and he must say what he means.”

Smuts and African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart wrote to Zuma after the Assembly passed the bill in April and pointed out that section 45 had been rendered meaningless, and in their view unconstitutional, by a punctuation error.

The section crucially seeks to criminalise wrongful classification of information, and was seen as a hard-won safeguard against the potential abuse of the legislation to cover up state wrongdoing. But the two opposition MPs argued that the omission of a full stop after a subclause had rendered it void.

Mazibuko said she was ready to take legal advice on how to obtain clarity from Zuma if he ignored her letter.

Parliament on Thursday announced the names of the MPs who would sit on the ad hoc committee appointed to perform the review. It has the same legislators involved in the fractious drafting process, except ANC MP Luwellyn Landers.

No date has been set for the committee to convene. Its lifespan expires at month end.

Activists who fought against the passage of the bill for three years have expressed hope that the president’s letter would open the door for a comprehensive rewrite.

They say despite the ANC’s staged retreat from its most regressive provisions during the drafting process, it still carries the risk of excessive state secrecy reminiscent of the apartheid era.

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