Deliberations on the Protection of State Information Bill were scheduled to be held this week following the department’s appearance before the ad hoc committee of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on Tuesday, but the meetings were cancelled by the committee members.
They wanted to study the “clause by clause” response of the department, which was presented by the acting director general Dennis Dhlomo, before continuing their deliberations, said Alf Lees, one of two Democratic Alliance members on the committee.
Lees said it felt as if the department had reversed the progress made by the committee. “We are going backwards now, as the ANC members of the committee appear to be letting the department dictate the pace,” he said.
Lees said the department was undermining the legislative authority of the council by rejecting amendments to the Bill proposed by the ANC, and it was stonewalling attempts to bring the Bill into line with the Constitution and the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
But ANC committee chairperson Rasiriti Tau denied the department was trying to bulldoze the committee and said the process was one of “engagement”. As a result, he said, he had not been taken aback by the department’s input to the committee.
“We agreed we needed to get more time in order to reach closure and we will ask the NCOP next week to extend the life of the ad hoc committee,” he said. “We want to reflect on what the department of state security had to say, and it wants to reflect on our arguments.”
The Mail & Guardian was informed at Parliament’s front desk on the day of Dhlomo’s appearance that the ad hoc committee meeting had been cancelled. But on Wednesday, Gershwin Dixon, the secretary for the committee, said he had been “fielding calls all day” asking why people had been turned away when the meeting had taken place. He said there had been an administrative mix-up, as there was a plenary session in the National Assembly. But that would not have led to the cancellation of the council’s meetings.
Those turned away missed Dhlomo’s response to the committee’s proposed changes to the Bill.
The department has made several attempts to manage the passage of the legislation. A special adviser to State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele made an “unusual” appearance at the ANC’s national executive committee meeting in September and gave an unscheduled presentation on the Bill. Regarded as a “securocrat”, his presence was surprising, but it is believed that he was brought in to reassure the committee. There were concerns that the Bill was poorly handled politically and that there had been insufficient consultation with the executive committee.
Shortly afterwards, the Bill was withdrawn from the parliamentary programme for further discussions to be held internally, with constituencies, other political parties and broader society.
The Bill has been driven by Cwele and continues to provoke unpre-cedented opposition. Last month it appeared that the ANC had bowed to public pressure on the Bill and proposed an amendment that gave much greater protection to journalists and whistle-blowers.