The NCOP hearings on the proposed Protection of State Information Bill were held in Gugulethu, Cape Town, on 31 January 2012. The sports complex was lined with chairs facing a long table of NCOP members who sat between a government backdrop and a row of bottled water. A large crowd of civil society organisations, interested citizens and curious passers-by had gather in the hall by 09h00. The hearing, which was unsurprisingly delayed, was held to hear comments on the Bill from members of the public.
The hearings started off fiercely when NCOP member, Raseriti Tau, started addressing the crowd in Afrikaans. Angry comments shot out from the crowd calling for the hearing to be held in the mothertongue of most of Gugulethu’s residences – Xhosa. The crowd was placated when an agreement was reached for the hearing to be conducted in English and Xhosa, with a translator on hand to help deliver the message. The translator – who was apparently a local preacher – seemed to relish his role as conduit to the masses. While I can’t speak Xhosa, I was told that provided a lively and liberal translation of any speaker’s message.
The hearing started with comments from the public moving across the room from left to right. The room was divided up into four sections, with five speakers from each section being allowed to ask questions before the floor was open to any speaker. Before the microphone was passed out the chairman requested that all speakers refer to the correct Bill when they spoke. Apparently there is no “Secrecy Bill” in South Africa – just the proposed Protection of State Information Bill.
While I had hoped that the hearings would leave me hopeful that the public’s wishes would be heard and included in redrafting the Bill, I was only left sad and disappointed. People were so excited to see government officials that they wanted to tell them everything that they want changed. Men and old woman spoke of not having running water and electricity in their homes. They spoke of the lack of service delivery in the townships and how this was the first time that anyone from government had ever come to speak to them. These complaints were met with requests that issues of service delivery not be raised at this hearing.
“Keep strictly to the Bill, please.”
The anger in the room was palpable. People shook their fists at the NCOP officials, shouted and refused to be silenced. One woman asked what the government wanted to keep secret from its people. There were complaints that the community had only heard about the hearings the day before and that they had not been given a copy of the Bill to read over. The right side of the hall was lined with ANC supporters who jeered and booed at critics of the Bill. When they got the microphone they read from prepared speeches and refused to keep to the three-minute limit imposed on others.
And while the members of public engaged with each other and tried to engage the NCOP officials, the officials sat before them with glazed eyes and unmoved expressions.When asked direct questions they did not answer them. The only engagement they offered was to correct members of the public when they mentioned issues of service delivery or referred to the Bill as the Secrecy Bill. I was left with the feeling that the lack of engagement was a sign that the hearings were a rubber stamp on the Bill’s procession to President Zuma.
How can government go to its people and then tell them that their grievances will not be heard? How can they tell elderly woman that they can’t speak about the raw sewage running outside their informal housing? How can they say that the Bill is not a threat to transparency and accountability in South Africa?
How can they ask people to trust them?