MPs acting oddly? They could be reading the secrecy Bill

Is your MP displaying stroke-like symptoms? Is he acting “funny”, speaking incoherently, and has he brought Cecil Burgess to tears? It could be a case of word salad, or something far more serious: like a reading of the Protection of State Information Bill. 

Close inspection of the transcript of the debate in Parliament on the Bill revealed that its effects are more serious than previously imagined. But the health of parliamentarians might be the least of the country’s problems; what with all the foreign spies trawling the corridors of Parliament, and now that Cope leader Terror Lekota has been ousted as the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me. The Bill must now be signed into law by President Jacob Zuma, after which civil society and opposition parties have promised to take up the issue with the Constitutional Court.

ANC MP Luwellyn Landers told Parliament that the Bill would reveal the true intentions of the “foreign intelligence agents” in the opposition benches. Clause 39 of the Bill would now expect them to register as such, he said. 

Landers advised the DA’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko have "a cup of tea" with Lekota, and to ask him about his role in “the sorry saga of the Russian satellite”. Lekota did not take kindly to the insinuation, or the fact that he was blamed for everything that went wrong, including the weather. He rose on a point of order to ask if Landers was implying that he was an intelligence agent. “I am being blamed for the rain and the sun by the ruling party and you keep quiet!” Lekota fumed.

Cope MP Diratsagae Kganare asked Landers if he wished to reveal information he was privy to during his time as a member of the National Party. No, said Landers. He was not “in a single instance”, saying Lekota was an agent.

Said Landers, “Chairperson, I repeat: there are people who walk freely even through the halls and corridors of this House, who will now have to declare their status as intelligence agents. The Bill has drawn interest of many countries because our law thus far did not make such a provision, and now it does.

“And so, like the honourable [Cecil] Burgess, we repeat: the ANC will support this Bill. And we want to say to the honourable [Lindiwe] Mazibuko and anyone else out there, who are making the threats of referring us to the Constitutional Court, that we will meet you on the hill."  

State Security Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, thought it was worth noting that Cope “is concerned with us legislating against the activities of espionage”. 

“Is Cope really here to assist the foreign spies to act against our country and our people? I don't know,” Cwele said. 

Landers thought a similar question could be asked about the “heavily medicated” IFP MP Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who discharged himself from hospital on the day of the debate, to plead with MPs to vote according to their consciences. Landers remained unconvinced of Oriani-Ambrosini’s intentions. “Does the honourable Oriani-Ambrosini, who is a citizen of the United States of America and Italy, issue his warnings and threats on behalf of the people of America or the government of Italy?” Landers asked.

The House chairperson Cedrick Frolick ruled that the citizenship of Parliamentarians was not up for debate. Oriani-Ambrosini returned to the issue of the Bill, and said the very notion of democracy was at stake. He warned of the day “when they shut our brains down”.

“Many of you know that this is a bad Bill. You have been told by the churches, you have been told by the trade unions, you have been told by the nongovernmental organisations, and you have been told by the people of South Africa that this is a bad Bill.

“Many of you have told me in the corridors that this is a bad Bill, and yet you will vote for it. This is where the hard-fought democracy perishes. If we do not have the courage to vote by conscience, this is the end of the First Republic, because then we can just as well send one single person from each political party to come in here with a proxy for all the orders. When the day comes that they shut down our brains and our conscience, this Parliament will no longer be what the Constitution wanted it to be.” 

ANC MP Cecil Burgess ventured a diagnosis for the consternation caused by the Bill. “Let me warn the House that the Protection of State Information Bill has the tendency to seriously affect the emotions and the thinking of reasonable people. They then start to behave incoherently, funny, and saying strange things that are inconsistent with the behaviour of ordinary and sane people,” Burgess said.

So amazing was this transformation to the unaffected observer, Burgess said, he had to “hold back … tears” when the ad hoc committee finished its work.

“This is how the Bill has touched some of us. You see what I've said, honourable Deputy Speaker, there it is now! It will get worse as I go along It's going to get much worse by thetime we finish,” he warned.

Burgess said the Bill made people go “mad”. They became “unstable” and “emotional” when the first draft of the Bill was published.

“There is a story that needs to be told and retold. Listen carefully, though, these people are already unstable,” Burgess said.“The Bill originally applied to all organs of state. This application clause resulted in much criticism. People became unstable and went mad. You couldn't understand them. It was at this early stage that we noticed that some people were emotionally affected by the Bill.

“Their reasoning became faulty. We listened, received submissions, consulted and in a responsible manner, the ANC agreed to restrict the application of the Bill to the security forces referred to in chapter 11 of our Constitution. We changed it, that's how reasonable people behave. That's how the ANC behaves. We changed it. Listen! The ANC behaves reasonably,” Burgess said.

Cwele, who had the final say, pointed MPs to the necessity of the Bill. In fact, he said, the Bill would also protect people “from being married by people they don’t know".

The Bill would also provide for “sensitive information, classification, reclassification and declassification which will protect it while it's sensitive and later enable our people access through a declassification system which we are introducing.”

Cwele said he shared the views of scholar Loch Johnson, "[that] the world is full of dangers, threats and risks, and intelligence agencies are there to provide protection by serving as eyes and ears of government".

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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