'We don't want SA to become a society of secrets'
Capetonians flocked to the streets on Wednesday to support the Right2Know campaign in a march to Parliament in protest over the proposed Protection of Information Bill.
If the Bill is passed by Parliament it will allow any state agency or government department—even parastatals or municipalities—to classify public information as secret. This could allow information that is in the public interest, for example information that relates to service delivery, to be classified as a state secret. Whistleblowers and journalists who publicise the information would face a fine or time in prison.
About a 3 000 people participated in the march on Wednesday morning, including former education minister Kader Asmal, Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, writer Andre Brink, Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes, cartoonist Zapiro and Zolani Mahola of the band Freshlyground.
Speaking at the gathering, Asmal said the Bill was a betrayal of the democratic principles struggle veterans had fought for and that he was ashamed to have to take on former comrades, while Archbishop Makgoba told the crowd “We cannot have a democracy based on lies.”
The march in Cape Town received more support from journalists than a similar event held in Johannesburg last week. A number of journalists from large Cape Town-based media organisations, such as Media24, attended the march.
Tweeting from outside Parliament, Dawes posted “SA paradoxes: We’re outside parly fighting a draconian secrecy law, while inside the world’s most transparent budget process is unfolding.”
The march was lively affair, with protesters blowing vuvuzelas and carrying home-made banners. One woman held a sign that said “The worst thing about the Secrecy Bill is,” followed by four words that were blacked out. Other signs said “Transparency now!”, “Truth = Freedom and “Defend Section 32.” Section 32 is the part of the Constitution that protects the access to information. At one point the crowd erupted into laughter when one of the speakers started a rendition of Awuleth’ Umshini Wami.
“It was bubbly and spontaneous and noisy,” said M&G investigative reporter Stefaans Brümmer.
Brümmer said some people broadly supported the campaign because they did not want more secrecy from government, whereas others were more specific as to exactly which parts of the Protection of Information Bill they were opposed to.
For Brümmer, who has worked on the arms deal scandal, the most dangerous part of the Bill is “the uncertainty it creates over what can be disclosed or not”. This is because the Bill, in its current format, is not clearly defined so a broad range of information can be classified without any explanation.
“It creates fear among people about speaking out,” he said.
“There have been many instances in history where people have been afraid to talk and they start whispering to each other. And we don’t want that. We don’t want South Africa to become a society of secrets.”
Following the march to Parliament, the organisers handed over a memorandum to Thango Lamani, the representative chosen by Parliament speaker Max Sisulu to receive the document.
In a press statement released ahead of the march, Mark Weinberg, national coordinator of the Right2Know campaign, said the campaign was gaining ground and the Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele was retreating.
Weinberg pointed out that since the campaign was launched at the end of August, Cwele has made two unplanned presentations to Parliament’s ad-hoc committee processing the Protection of Information Bill.
“He has conceded that there are major problems with his Bill. But even with his proposed changes, the Bill will still choke the free flow of information—the lifeblood of the open, responsive and accountable democracy that our Constitution demands,” he wrote.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 1000 people attended the march. This was corrected on October 28.