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Outcry over ANC 'hijack' of information Bill

Lynley Donnelly

The introduction of an ANC committee to continue the public consultation process undermines the legitimacy of Parliament.

The introduction of an ANC committee to continue the public consultation process on the protection of information Bill undermines the legitimacy of Parliament and opens the proposed legislation to further legal challenges, say civil society experts.

“It is a procedural anomaly and very unwise,” said Judith February, the programme manager of the political monitoring and information service at the Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa).

“It is disappointing that the ANC has been allowed to hijack the public-participation process which Parliament should have led.

“This is a conflation of the ANC with Parliament which is very problematic and undermines the legitimacy of the democratic institution,” said February.

The ANC introduced its committee on Tuesday, after the Protection of State Information Bill was unexpectedly removed from the parliamentary programme just before it was to be debated in the National Assembly. The ANC parliamentary caucus said this was to allow for further public consultation on the Bill.

But the decision by the ANC to introduce the committee, along with plans for an ANC study group on the Bill to consider oral and written submissions in Parliament has infuriated opposition parties and led to confusion as to how the Bill will be processed further.

February said that while the ANC was within its rights to solicit further opinion from the public and its constituency, it was unclear how these inputs could be incorporated into any further work on the Bill.

“It is creating a procedural dilemma and opens the Bill up to further legal challenges,” she said.

‘In limbo’
The life of the Ad Hoc Committee on Protection of Information Bill ended when the Bill was tabled in the National Assembly, where it now sits in limbo.

February, however, argued that the ad hoc committee should have been re-established, or the Bill should have been referred to a portfolio committee—such as justice and constitutional development—to conduct any further public input in a legitimate parliamentary setting.

The Democratic Alliance’s Dene Smuts and David Maynier—both members of the ad hoc committee—said in a joint statement that the redrafted Bill should be properly advertised and hearings conducted in public in Parliament.

The Right2Know campaign, a civil society coalition, has written to the speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu, questioning the move.

“We are of the view that while the ANC — has the right to solicit opinion, it should not do so to the exclusion or substitution of a proper parliamentary process,” it said.

“We — submit that the Bill needs to be referred to a properly constituted parliamentary portfolio or ad hoc committee whose task it would then be to garner further public opinion on behalf of Parliament as a democratic institution.”

But Moloto Mothapo, ANC caucus spokesperson, said that the ANC’s committee did “not need Parliament’s endorsement to continue”.

“It is not a parliamentary process, but this does not make it illegal,” he said.

The ANC would not be utilising any parliamentary resources to conduct the work on the Bill he said, and “at the end of consultations, we will sit down to consider the processes embarked on and take a decision on what to do next”.

In order for the Bill to appear on the parliamentary programme again, it will go before the chief whips forum and then the programming committee.

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