On 22nd November 2011, the Protection of State Information Bill was approved by parliament in South Africa. While the debate about what is international best practice with respect to state secrets is well and good, South Africans and the government would do well to reflect on the basics: who is responsible for creating government and who the government serves.
The answer to both the above questions is the public. In principle, if anything in law changes that allows all or part of government to entrench itself without the necessary public scrutiny, then that should quite rightly raise eyebrows. The South African secrecy bill, as it should, has eyebrows wiggling spastically all over the countryside.
Wonkie has explored the implications of such a law over a year ago in articles such as Dummies Guide to Corruption and in others like freedom of the press in South Africa. While amendments have been made to the bill since those articles were published, the singular point of contention is that there is still no public interest defence in it.
This would essentially mean that the government has sole discretion and much power to hide anything it deems fit. Examples could range from devious military plans to invade Swaziland, details of expenditure for that all important national security meeting held in the Bahamas for the ruling party and close friends, or the amorous escapades of some minister with your lovely daughter. Anything.
It is clear from the amount of protest that the South African public already does not trust the current ANC government – and they have reason not to. Jacob Zuma, the president himself, is implicated in so many scandals and dubious dealings that even Silvio Berlusconi is rumoured to be in awe of him. Bheki Cele, as police chief, would have also wielded such power and likely found a way to hide his dodgy lease under some banner of protecting the public. And it’s not just the opposition protesting the bill – even ANC allies like COSATU are opposed to the bill in its current form.
South African government should be aspiring to increase transparency and expose corruption – ironically as Jacob Zuma himself advocated. This bill, unfortunately, does exactly the opposite. One can only hope that the Constitutional Court, when the debate ultimately reaches that level, will protect more than just the constituents of the ANC. Otherwise, South Africa is well on its way to become a true banana republic.