Opposition cries foul over info bill move
Cape Town - The ANC has set up a ruling party-only mechanism to consider further submissions on the protection of information bill.
The move was swiftly condemned by the opposition as an abuse of parliamentary process.
The office of ANC Chief Whip Mathole Motshekga said on Tuesday the party would establish a special committee to co-ordinate public engagement - including countrywide hearings - on the contentious bill.
It is also setting up an ANC study group on the bill, which will consider written and oral submissions from interested parties in Parliament.
Spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said the study group would comprise the ANC MPs who served on the now defunct multi-party ad hoc committee that drafted the bill.
It is inviting submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org or ANC Information Bill Office, Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, PO Box 15, Cape Town, 8001.
The Democratic Alliance and African Christian Democratic Party cried foul over the exclusion of the opposition from what pertains to be a parliamentary process.
Right2Know campaign co-ordinator Murray Hunter also called for other parties to be involved.
"Public consultation is not something one party should own. What we don't want is public consultations stage managed by the ANC to spin this bill to the public," he said.
ACDP MP Steve Swart, who was a member of the ad hoc committee, said: "I find the ANC's approach unprecedented, and totally unacceptable. The bill is before Parliament which includes many, many political parties, not just the ANC... and the process seems fatally flawed from the beginning."
Dene Smuts and David Maynier from the DA said if the ANC sincerely wanted to invite submissions on the bill it would do so in a reconstituted multi-party ad hoc committee.
They said instead, the ruling party appeared to want to manipulate public opinion.
"Consultative caravans like these are the time-honoured ANC method of manipulating public opinion and then presenting the pre-determined result as the voice of the people," they said.
"The question is only which side of the divided ANC will predetermine the result."
The bill was due to be debated in the National Assembly last Tuesday and widely expected to be passed thanks to the ANC's overwhelming majority. But it was taken off the programme on the eve of the vote.
The move came amid a reported rift in the ANC's national executive committee over the bill and unhappiness on key provisions on the part of the Congress of SA Trade Unions, a formal alliance partner.
Said Smuts and Maynier: "Submissions taken by a secretariat serving only the ANC study group will likewise emerge manipulated and massaged to suit whichever faction is in the ascendancy."
The DA planned to lodge a formal objection to Parliament's whippery.
It said if the ruling party "persists in this abuse of taxpayers' money", it would urge civil society to use the addresses provided for submissions on the bill, to protest against the process.
Mothapo gave assurances the legislature would not be made to pay for any part of the process, even if new submissions were heard in Parliament.
"We will devise means, but Parliament is not paying for it."
He said ANC MPs would use their constituency allocation to pay for expenses incurred to consult communities on the legislation.
Judith February from the Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) said the process was highly unusual, and warned that the parliamentary process could not be partisan.
"Of course the ANC is within its rights to solicit as many viewpoints as possible, but when it comes to a parliamentary process it must include other parties."
February said the courts had been very clear on this principle and a deviation could be contested.
"If they don't do this properly, if they undertake a parliamentary process without incorporating views of all citizens, it is something which civil society groups or opposition can challenge legally."
The bill seeks to regulate the classification of state information and would repeal legislation from 1982, but critics say it harks back to apartheid-era secrecy.
Academics, activists and journalists argue that it fails to balance the need to protect national security with the constitutional imperative of transparency.
Various groups have vowed to challenge the bill in court if passed in its current form.