The threat of Constitutional Court action against the government over the Protection of Information Bill won’t have any effect on the relationship between the ANC and Cosatu, according to the union federation’s spokesman Patrick Craven. But to court it definitely will be if the ANC doesn’t back down on certain clauses. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
On Tuesday Cosatu published a detailed press statement, strongly objecting to several clauses in the Protection of Information Bill currently before Parliament. The trade union federation also threatened to sue the government before the Constitutional Court for a ruling on the bill’s constitutionality should talks between the ruling party and its tripartite alliance partner fail.
Cosatu said it “acknowledges that there is a need to replace the Protection of Information Act of 1982, which is a relic of apartheid security legislation.”
The statement continues: “In its present form, however, this new Bill is a threat to South Africans’ democratic right to be fully informed on matters of public interest. It could be abused to cover up information on corruption and misuse of public resources and to criminalise whistle-blowers who try to expose crime and corruption.”
Speaking to the Daily Maverick, Craven said a Sapa story which led with Cosatu’s threat of court action was misleading. According to Craven, taking the ANC to court over the Bill would be a final, drastic action. He said, “I think Sapa put out a rather misleading summary of the whole thing. We have already agreed to hold a meeting with the ANC. Obviously that’s our first objective – to see if we can’t reach an agreement on the contentious points in the Bill if it were to go ahead. Then we would consider taking it to the Constitutional Court.”
However, in the statement, issued under Craven’s name, it says that “if the bill is passed without major amendments to protect whistle-blowers and South Africans’ right to access to information of public interest, the federation will refer the bill to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on its constitutionality.”
In its statement, Cosatu objected to the overly broad and subjective definitions for determining what information could be classified, as well as the harsh penalties recommended for those who contravened the law.
Cosatu said, “Chapter 11 sets out severe offences and penalties. In many instances minimum imprisonment sentences would be imposed without the option of a fine, a more severe penalty in terms of criminal law.
“A key concern for the federation is how this could deter whistle-blowing, especially by workers, who are often the ones who have access to, or witness, irregularities,” said Cosatu.
The trade union federation took particular offence at sections 37 and 38, which, it said, could be interpreted to mean Cosatu would be obliged by law to report a worker violating the law. “This provision could undermine the obligation of a trade union official to assist a worker in blowing the whistle on irregularities where it affects classified information,” it said.
Cosatu has not had the easiest of relationships with the government since Jacob Zuma became president. There has already been a massive public servants strike which didn’t endear Cosatu to the ANC. A fight over the POIB playing out in a forum as public as the Constitutional Court could drive an even bigger wedge between the ANC and Cosatu.
It appears the ANC really wants to keep the POIB intact, as sweeping and draconian as it is, despite objections from all sectors of civil society. The ANC will now have to consider whether it considers good relations with Cosatu more important than keeping this Bill and what forcing the federation to haul them before the Constitutional Court might mean for tripartite alliance relations.
But, according to Craven, this difference of opinion wouldn’t affect the alliance in any way. “We’ve always been independent organisations and we’ve had different views on particular questions while sharing views on many more questions. And we will open up a debate and I’m sure the ANC itself will want to debate these issues.
“I don’t think these things are cast in stone, and we’re convinced the arguments are quite overwhelming and we can make some progress on this,” Craven said.
Despite the large numbers of civil society organisations currently lobbying against the same bill, Craven said Cosatu wasn’t working together with any of them. “There are numerous organisations that are campaigning against it [the POIB], but we’re not united in any kind of common front,” he said. “We’ve all quite independently come to the same conclusions on some of the clauses. Obviously we don’t agree with everybody on everything.”
Interestingly, Craven said Cosatu had not yet formulated a position on the proposed media appeals tribunal because it wasn’t a bill before Parliament yet. “Cosatu’s position on the tribunal is to neither support it nor reject it because we don’t know enough about how it will be constituted and exactly what its function will be,” he said.
The ANC has paid scant attention to protests and petitions against the POIB so far, but if it does change its mind on how the contentious clauses in the Bill should be framed, it will be more likely than not respond to pressure from its powerful alliance partner. For ordinary South Africans, Cosatu is probably the best ally we could have asked for. As we know in politics, it is not about how right you are, but how big is your stick. DM
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí