The office of the speaker of Parliament has dismissed concerns about the legitimacy of the ANC’s new parliamentary consultation process on the Protection of State Information Bill.
“There is no confusion,” spokesperson Sukhthi Naidoo said after opposition MPs and civil society challenged the ANC’s decision to invite new submissions without setting up a multiparty committee to hear them.
Naidoo said the ANC, or any other party, could do “whatever it likes” in terms of inviting public input on the Bill.
She pointed out that the Bill had not been withdrawn from Parliament, but that the debate on it had merely been postponed.
“For us, it is a simple scheduling issue. There is no sense of what is going to happen next.”
Naidoo said there were three options on how to proceed.
The Bill could be referred anew to a parliamentary committee for deliberation; tabled for debate by an MP, with amendments; or it could be put to the National Assembly as is and rejected.
Opposition MPs reacted with outrage on Tuesday after ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga invited interest groups to make submissions on the state secrecy Bill to a task team of ruling party MPs.
His office said it would “afford particularly individuals and formations, which are yet to have a say on the Bill, an opportunity to do so”.
Motshekga withdrew the Bill from the National Assembly programme for debate last week, a day before it was expected to be passed, amid reports of a split in senior party echelons about the legislation.
It encountered a wall of opposition when it was first introduced, with critics calling it a return to apartheid-era repression.
Constitutional Court challenge
The opposition saw the ANC’s call for submissions from previously silent quarters as an attempt to counteract continued resistance to the Bill, including threats of a Constitutional Court challenge.
The Right2Know Campaign, at the forefront of protest against the legislation, said the ANC process seemed intended as a sweetheart exercise.
“I think we understand that quite clearly there is not really an appetite to change the Bill, but we must not allow this process to be stage-managed,” the group’s co-ordinator Murray Hunter said.
The campaign wrote to the speaker’s office on Thursday, demanding clarity on how the renewed consultation and any potential amendments would be handled.
“We are … of the view that while the ANC, as well as any other political party, has the right to solicit opinion, it should not do so to the exclusion or substitution of a proper parliamentary process,” the group wrote.
‘Garner further public opinion’
“We would 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.”
Asked whether the speaker’s office was responding to the letter, Naidoo pointed out that Parliament was in recess.
In the meanwhile, the clash between the opposition and the ANC on the Bill continued as Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts tackled Motshekga for reportedly saying that if the Constitutional Court were to pronounce on the legislation, this would violate the separation of powers.
“The Constitutional Court is there precisely to decide when law or conduct is inconsistent with the Constitution,” Smuts said.
She added that Motshekga was “only parroting cleverer and more senior ANC office bearers” — a reference to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s remark last month that members of the court were acting in opposition to the government and seeking to arrest its work.
Motshekga’s office said Smuts was lying and that the DA was “a desperate party that has nothing more to add to the process”.
“The chief only lamented a tendency amongst those who disagree with Bills before Parliament to undermine the institution’s constitutional powers through threats that they will challenge in the Constitutional Court if things don’t go their way,” his spokesman Moloto Mothapo said.
He said such critics were creating a situation where Parliament legislated with a “Constitutional Court gun” to its head. — Sapa
The passing of the Protection of State Information Bill came as no surprise, raising the threat to media freedom. View our special report.