Cape Town — The Ministry of State Security has welcomed the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill by the National Council of Provinces.
The Bill was passed on Thursday, bringing it a step closer to becoming law.
The bill has been the subject of discussion across various platforms and has earned the status of the most talked about security law.
"We express our appreciation to civil society and various organisations that made their input in improving this Bill. Over 800 amendments were made by the NCOP Committee processing the Bill," said the ministry on Friday.
A number of amendments, it said, were worth noting, particularly as they serve to address some concerns raised by civil society:
* The Bill now provides, in clause 43, for precise protection of whistle-blowers and those who expose corruption from prosecution;
* All minimum sentences have been dropped, except in espionage related offences;
* A public interest override, in clause 19, provides a simple mechanism for a person to apply for access to an organ of state for access to a document and if refused, may appeal to the head of an organ of state, the relevant Minister or can apply to the court.
The ministry said it has noted calls for people to take the Bill to the Constitutional Court.
"Indeed, South Africa is a constitutional democracy and we would welcome such an action as it is provided for by our Constitution. There is nothing to fear in this regard," it said.
The vote count for the passing of the Bill was 34 'for', and 16 'against'. There were no abstentions.
In Thursday's vote, the ruling African National Congress voted for the amendments and the Bill to go to the National Assembly, while the opposition parties - the Democratic Alliance (DA), COPE, Independent Democrats and Inkatha Freedom Party, which earlier this week walked out of a committee meeting in protest - voted against.
A division was called at the behest of the DA to take the vote. Before members voted, parties were allowed to make declarations.
In his declaration, COPE's Dennis Bloem made a last-minute appeal to members of the House to vote against the Bill.
"We don't want our children to spit on our graves and say 'here lies a traitor'," he said.
The DA's Alf Lees first implored members in isiZulu to vote against the Bill before repeating his plea in English. "We beg you not to vote for this Bill."
Earlier, the Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, addressed the House about the Bill.
The Bill seeks to repeal the old apartheid Act 84 of 1982, criminalise espionage and information peddling, and introduce a clearly regulated system of classification, declassification and reclassification in government.
Cwele said that the Bill sought to advance the public interest by protecting certain classified information, which - if it became known - would prejudice state programmes and hinder its ability to perform its duties.
The Bill also protects valuable information held by state organs against unlawful alteration, destruction or loss in order to prevent hardship experienced by "our people who may as a result be denied services they are entitled to," Cwele explained.
He said there was nothing to be feared. "To those who fear that the Bill may be abused we say: the only thing to fear is fear itself."
The Bill provides that a decision to classify information must be solely based as set out in the act, classification of state information was justifiable when it was necessary to protect national security. Also, classification of state information could not under any circumstances be used to conceal corruption, unlawful acts or omission, incompetence, inefficiency or administrative error, Cwele said.
On criticism of the absence of a public interest clause, the inclusions and amendments made to Clause 43 provided for exemptions on disclosure and possession of classified information and went a long way in addressing this concern, he said.
Cwele denied that the Bill was in conflict with the Promotion of Access to Information Act and therefore unconstitutional.
"The definition in the Bill adopted by the National Assembly expressly excludes activities or freedoms provided for in the Constitution, namely lawful political activity, advocacy, protest or dissent," he said.
Opposition parties referred to the Bill as the 'Secrecy Bill' and had to be corrected by the NCOP chairperson, MJ Mahlangu, who urged them to use its official title.