Info Bill resistance: Cosatu treads carefully

It appears that Cosatu has toned down its opposition to the Protection of State Information Bill. Whereas the labour federation spoke out strongly against the Bill last year, it now insists that it has taken a softer line to “create space” for continuing discussions about it with the ANC.

The controversial law, known as the secrecy Bill, seeks to regulate the classification of state information and calls for hefty penalties, including jail sentences, for those in possession of classified documents. Journalists and other corruption whistle-blowers will not be able to claim a public-interest defence if they place classified information in the public domain.

It is speculated that the federation is deeply divided on the Bill and wants to tread carefully in opposing it. Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini denied that the federation was backing down in its opposition of the Bill, saying it was discussing “a way forward” with an ANC study group.

“If the Bill does not address the issue of public interest, we are prepared to go to the Constitutional Court,” Dlamini told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday. “The ANC is arguing that the issue of public interest is taken care of in other laws, but we are not agreeing with them. We want the information Bill to have the public-interest clause.”

In the past few weeks some of the union federation’s members have claimed that there is “a feeling in Cosatu that the Bill is a sensitive area and needs to be handled carefully in the public arena to ensure that everyone in Cosatu is brought with and to ensure divisions do not arise in the year of Mangaung”. “So there are lots of sensitivities to manage.”

According to the source, Cosatu affiliates such as the National Union of Mineworkers, National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union, Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union and a section of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) were being lobbied by the South African Communist Party (SACP) to support the Bill. The unions for metalworkers, municipal workers and a different section of Sadtu remained strongly opposed to the Bill.

Another Cosatu insider said the federation would not backtrack on its stance on the Bill but was focusing its concerns on “areas that are dangerous for Cosatu and workers”.
“Cosatu and its unions don’t have the same issues as the media. For us, it’s about who determines [what is in the] public interest and what happens to workers who blow the whistle on corruption?”

The source said that there was “a lot of wheeling and dealing” behind the scenes, spearheaded mainly by the SACP, to convince Cosatu affiliates to support the Bill.

Cosatu’s national spokesperson, Patrick Craven, said it was still consulting on the Bill. “We will definitely embark on mass action and also legal action if the Bill is passed as is.”

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