On Wednesday I was in Parliament for the second reading of the Protection of State Information Bill. Having withdrawn the Bill from the National Assembly at the last minute for an ill-defined, and possibly unconstitutional, round of public consultation in October, the ANC announced at the beginning of last week that the Bill was to be returned to Parliament, to be voted on by the National Assembly.
So, along with other activists from the Right2Know Campaign, I was in the public gallery on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the Minister for State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, to present his speech on the Bill. Coincidentally, the National Assembly’s debate on this year’s Sixteen Days of Action against Gender Violence was held earlier in the session.
As several MPs noted, the debate was unusual in that everyone agreed with the remarks made by Lulu Xingwana, the Minister for Women, Children, and People with Disabilities, that this violence needs to stop. However, they also remarked that for all Parliament’s good intentions and South Africa’s progressive legislation aimed at reducing violence against women, rates of gender-based violence in South Africa remain astonishingly high. The issue is implementing this legislation: in ensuring that the police actually do take victims’ allegations of violence seriously, and that a Domestic Violence Register is kept in every police station.
It was a particularly unpleasant irony that a few hours later, Minister Cwele announced the final draft of the Secrecy Bill in the National Assembly. Having accused organisations opposed to the Bill of being the ‘proxies’ of ‘foreign spies’, the Minister went on to describe a piece of legislation which, if enacted in its present form, will seriously undermine all South Africans’ right to access government information – a right guaranteed by Section 32 of our Bill of Rights.
The Secrecy Bill allows officials in all of the almost one thousand ‘organs of state’ to classify information as secret. The Bill does not include a public interest clause, and imposes draconian penalties on anyone caught in the possession of classified information. Whistleblowers will face up to twenty-five years in prison if they leak information.
This weekend we had a taste of what will come if the Secrecy Bill is enacted. Mac Maharaj, the Presidential spokesperson, has laid charges against Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer of the Mail & Guardian for reporting on allegations that he lied under oath when questioned by the Scorpions about the arms deal. Sole and Brümmer are being prosecuted under section 28 the National Prosecuting Authority Act which imposes penalties of up to fifteen years imprisonment for disclosing evidence collected by the NPA.
The Bill will have a chilling effect on the media, but it also has wider implications: it will make accessing information held by the state more difficult for ordinary South Africans. And this brings me back to the Sixteen Days of Activism. Openness is essential to the maintenance of our democracy. Without it, we can’t hold the state to account. For organisations campaigning against gender-based violence, it means that access to police statistics and government information will no longer be guaranteed.
The National Assembly will be voting on the Secrecy Bill tomorrow. Wear black to show your opposition to the Bill. Right2Know will be holding a series of pickets across South Africa in protest. Please join us in saying NO to the Secrecy Bill. If the anti-apartheid movement taught us anything, it’s that freedom and openness breathe life into democracy. We cannot flourish in darkness.
For more information on tomorrow’s protests click here