Media, Politics

ANC makes U-turn on secrecy bill – and lives to tell the tale

By Osiame Molefe 20 September 2011

“Tell us another one” was the response from everyone when ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga said the party’s reason for pulling the Protection of State Information Bill on the eve of its tabling at the national assembly was because the ANC cares about what its constituency has to say. But despite the derision, Motshekga did not change his tune. He’s adamant the ANC is listening. And cares. By OSIAME MOLEFE.

It beggars belief that SA’s democratic process may actually have prevailed (for now). After one year and 20 or so days, has a grassroots civil society movement succeeded where opposition parties have failed? Frankly, no. The bill being pulled at the 11th hour has more to do with internal ANC squabbles than civil society pressure. And that theory may have merit.

Before the ANC parliamentary caucus met on Monday at 14:00 to debate whether the bill should be withdrawn, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe had all but announced that the bill would be withdrawn. And by the time the caucus meeting began, it was confirmed that the bill would be withdrawn, reinforcing the idea that the decision had been made over the weekend at the ANC’s national executive committee and that the caucus’s function was to rubber-stamp it. This left Motshekga with just one question to answer. Why?

“There are still interested parties who need further hearing as well as other parties who have made late submissions. The ANC is of the view that these voices should be heard,” Motshekga said reading his prepared statement. He added that ANC MPs wanted to take the bill to their constituencies and that the further debates sought by the party were to improve the quality of a bill with which everybody within the party was perfectly happy. But we know that was not entirely true.

From within its alliance ranks, Cosatu – spurred by info bill committee chairman Cecil Burgess’s insistence on clause-by-clause voting on the bill – released a statement that could have easily come from the Right2Know campaign. It was this that the Right2Know credits as the tipping point in its battle against the draconian elements of the bill. Other senior and respected party voices, too, began to speak out publicly from this point. Former state security minister Ronnie Kasrils has been warning for a long time now that the haste to complete the bill would lead to disaster in the future. And two weeks before his death, former minister education minister Kader Asmal penned a letter calling on all South Africans to reject the bill in its entirety.

It is also apparent that others on the NEC had adopted Pallo Jordan’s wait-and-see approach in Parliament. Speaking at an open ANC branch meeting in Cape Town debating the media appeals tribunal, Jordan emphasised the need for a bill to regulate information that would compromise national security, but hastened to add that the bill was of such importance it should be debated until it was ready to be enacted without regard for deadlines or cost. “The protection of information bill will go through many changes (in Parliament). That’s how democracy works. If you want it cheap, go for a dictatorship. It’s dirt cheap,” Jordan said.

But give credit where it’s due, Cosatu, Kasrils, Asmal and others echoed wide support garnered by the Right2Know campaign, so it cannot be said that the pressure from within that led to Monday’s developments existed in a vacuum. Part of it may also have been what Motshekga called a “revolutionary conscience” gnawing away at members of the NEC and the ANC caucus.

The bill’s withdrawal, though, is temporary. Motshekga said it would be finalised by the end of the year, but was unclear what will happen between now and then. Now that the ad hoc committee on the bill had fulfilled its function, it ceases to exist, leaving the bill in limbo. Opposition parties hope that sense continues to prevail and that the bill will be returned for parliamentary debate. The Right2Know campaign has been cautiously optimistic, saying that the further engagement promised “has the potential — if fully implemented — to meet the key Right2Know demand that the bill in its current form be scrapped and referred back to the people”.

However, Burgess and fellow ANC MP Luwellyn Landers – who sat flanking Motshekga at Monday’s briefing in a bad cop-good cop-bad cop formation – said they see nothing else in the bill that should be changed. In between Motshekga’s assurances that the bill is the culmination of the democratic process and that further debate is its crescendo, Burgess defended the lack of a public interest defence while Landers said the bill’s jail terms were genteel by international norms.

As for who else needs to make or has made further submissions, Motshekga was non-committal. He tried several times to say it is “the people”, but the media wasn’t going to let him get away with something so vague. He relented saying he did not yet have names. And with the yet-to-be-determined process that will follow, there are still many unknowns in this U-turn. It may eventually redraft the bill, as demanded by the Cosatu, Right2Know and other voices, or it could, at a more opportune moment, be voted on and passed unchanged. One thing is certain, though: SA’s civil society remains vehemently opposed to the bill and will not relent. DM


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