Secrecy Bill South Africa
A demonstrator protests against the passing of the Protection of Information Bill outside Parliament in Cape Town REUTERS

How will the Protection of State Information Bill impact on the economy, media, and people of South Africa?

Members of Parliament from opposition parties in South Africa united against the ANC on Tuesday to try to stop the new secrecy information bill - legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism - from being passed. But they failed on all fronts.

Their combined efforts failed to convince the ruling African National Congress (ANC) who gathered at the National Assembly en masse and voted to pass the bill by 229 votes, against 107.

Pleas from media organisations, unions, civil society and other interest groups who opposed the proposed law fell on deaf ears.

After the bill was passed, media and activists left the National Assembly chamber in silent protest and wore black clothes to symbolise the "death of democracy" on what has been labelled 'Black Tuesday.'

Officially, the bill is aimed at creating "a coherent approach to protection of state information and the classification and declassification of state information and will create a legislative framework for the state to respond to espionage and other associated hostile activities".

The law could have serious implications for South Africa, as doubts may rise among investors about the government's public commitment to fight corruption. According to a Bloomsberg report, the state's relationship with the media has deteriorated as newspapers reported on scandals involving senior officials including President Jacob Zuma. Charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion against him were dropped on April 6, 2009, the month before he was appointed president.

On Nov. 16 State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele told Parliament the law was required to combat espionage and information-peddling, and amendments that had been made to it addressed all legitimate concerns. He rejected calls for the release of secret information to be permissible in the public interest, saying harm would have already been done by the time a court could test the validity of such a defense.

"This bill is not about regulating the media," Cwele said. "Neither is this bill about covering up corruption. We remain resolute and steadfast against corruption and fraud."

But how will this bill affect South Africa?


The South African rand fell as much as 1.6 per cent against the dollar on Tuesday, and traded 1.2 per cent lower 8.452 at 4:07pm local time.

Ion de Vleeschauwer, chief dealer at Bidvest Bank, which runs South Africa's largest chain of moneychangers, said this law was not encouraging investor confidence. "It is certainly not working in the rand's favour today."

"Business can only flourish in a society where the flow of information is free and unfettered by undue state control," Gareth Ackerman, chairman of Pick n Pay Stores Ltd., South Africa's second-largest grocer, said in a statement. "The apparent haste with which our government appears to wish to push this bill through the House of Assembly will be damaging to foreign investment."


Most of South Africa's leading newspapers published front-page editorials on Tuesday urging lawmakers to vote against the bill. Labor unions and media companies said the bill will curb free speech and stifle efforts to expose corruption.

"The spreading culture of self-enrichment, either corrupt or merely inappropriate, makes scrutiny by a free media which is fuelled by whistle-blowers who have the public interest at heart more essential than ever since 1994," a joint editorial said.

Nobel laureate and cleric Desmond Tutu said it was "insulting" to all South Africans "to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism, that contains no public benefit defense clause and that makes the state answerable only to the state."

Members of the South African National Editors' Forum and the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association attended the sitting dressed in black and staged a walk-out after the vote.

"We are broken inside," Mondli Makhanya, chairman of the South African National Editors' Forum, told reporters outside Parliament. "We never thought we'd come here dressed in black to actually witness democracy, this constitution of ours, being betrayed."

Opposition Parties

Opposition parties plan to ask the Constitutional Court, South Africa's highest judicial body, to determine whether the bill is lawful.

Parliamentary Leader of the Democratic Alliance, Lindiwe Mazibuko, said Tuesday was "a dark day for our democracy" and that "it should never have come to this."

"If passed, this bill will unstitch the very fabric of our Constitution. It will criminalise the freedoms that so many of our people fought for," she said.

She pleaded to members of parliament and said "it is our duty to protect democracy" stating that the bill poses a danger to South Africa's freedom.

Before confirming that the Democratic Alliance opposed the Bill, Mazibuko said: "The ANC has abandoned the values of its founders exactly 100 years after it was formed."

"Whatever happens... we [Democratic Alliance] will not give up the fight."

The People of South Africa

More than 400 organisations and 16,000 individuals joined the Right2Know campaign that petitioned against the bill. Protests took to the streets outside Parliament in Cape Town and at the ANC's headquarters in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Protestors strongly expressed their views opposing the bill, and pled to "stop the return to apartheid-era secrecy".

South Africa's Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Nic Dawnes said the vote in parliament was "not the end of the road" for the secrecy bill as it could still be fixed at the NCOP.

"So many South Africans made it clear that the bill is a danger to democracy and it wouldn't have been that difficult to make some final changes to it. Instead we're left with a flawed and dangerous legislation," he said.

Many citizens have taken to Twitter to express their sentiments on the issue, with many human rights activists saying that the "Constitutional Court is the last hope for press freedom" in South Africa.

Leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, sent a strong message to her Twitter followers: "Only the voters can save SA. They have the power."

South African columnist Max du Preez said "the ANC confirmed our worst expectations: they actually took the first concrete step since our negotiated settlement of 1994 to limit our democracy."