ANC insists on limited Info Bill changes

By Drum Digital
10 October 2013

The ANC ruled out a comprehensive rewrite of the Protection of State Information Bill.

The ANC ruled out a comprehensive rewrite of the Protection of State Information Bill on Wednesday, using its majority to ensure Parliament confined itself to correcting two technical errors in the draft law.

It took this position after state law adviser Enver Daniels said President Jacob Zuma had effectively precluded far-reaching changes when he sent the bill back to Parliament last month.

"No room exists in the referral for issues not raised by the president," Daniels told the National Assembly's ad hoc committee reviewing the contested draft law.

Daniels then proposed changes to correct sections 42 and 45.

Section 42 contains an incorrect cross reference to another section of the bill.

Section 45 seeks to criminalise the classification of information to conceal corruption and to protect whistle-blowers who expose a cover-up, but it is rendered void by a punctuation error.

These two sections were singled out by Zuma as problematic when he sent the bill back to the legislature instead of signing it into law, saying he believed sections were incoherent and therefore unconstitutional.

Due to the way the president phrased his referral to Parliament, there has been confusion for the past four weeks about whether he had instructed MPs to review all of the bill or merely rewrite those two sections.

This made for a highly partisan debate as the committee met for the first time on Thursday.

Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said Daniels was "divining" what Zuma meant, and the uncertainty had made it impossible for the committee to proceed with the review. She pointed out that former presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe had provided detailed explanations when they referred bills back to the legislature and proposed that committee chairman Cecil Burgess write to Zuma to ask for similar clarity. The African National Congress rejected the call as an insult to the president and agreed to the changes put forward by Daniels. "Some people are saying the president is not very clever, along with his legal team and everybody else. They are actually insulting the president," said ANC MP Jerome Maake.

Smuts and African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart said that although they not only agreed with the amendments, but had in fact requested them in a letter to Zuma which likely prompted his decision, they could not support them.

"Even though we asked for these changes we cannot agree to them because the process is so flawed," Smuts said, adding that the situation had become "completely farcical". The ANC is expected to adopt the amendments by vote when the committee meets on Thursday, for possibly the last time, before referring the amended bill back to the National Assembly. This would dash the muted hope, recently voiced by critics of the bill, that the ruling party would yet return to the drawing board and address remaining concerns with one of the most bitterly opposed pieces of post-apartheid legislation. Among those who have called for a redraft are the labour movement, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos.

They say that although the bill underwent many changes during three years of drafting, it still raises the spectre of excessive state secrecy and will not pass constitutional muster on many grounds.

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos has warned the president's referral itself may fall foul of the Constitution.

The only valid grounds for the president to refer a bill back was because its flaws made it likely that it would undermine people's constitutional rights.

He said "cryptic letters like the one sent by President Zuma" therefore had implications for the separation of powers and potential implications for the constitutionality of the amended bill.

-by Sapa

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