Debate Over Definition Emerges in South Africa

19 August 2011

A new controversy emerged this week in deliberations over the Protection of Information Bill in South Africa as proponents suggested that the key term “national security” in the bill doesn’t need to be defined.

“Which means we’d go from an outrageously broad definition (thus open to abuse) to no definition at all (thus inviting abuse on a scale we haven’t even contemplated),” commented Murray Hunter, National Coordinator of the Right2Know Campaign.

Luwellyn Landers,  an African National Congress parliamentarian, proposed that lawmakers not seek to define national security – the term that would guide decisions to classify information – and leave it up to courts and intelligence operatives to interpret the concept, according to a report by Emsie Ferreira for the South Africa Press Association. “Virtually nowhere in democratic dispensations such as ours have governments defined it. National security defies clear definition. It has malleable and very elastic meanings,” he said.

“But opposition MPs believe that, in the words of the Democratic Alliance’s Dene Smuts, if left undefined the term `can mean any damn thing’ and the current draft would sail dangerously close to earlier ones that sought to allow classification to protect not only national security but the still more elusive notion of national interest,” SAPA reported. The use of the phrase “national interest” in earlier versions of the bill had also aroused protest and was eventually dropped.

Another parliamentarian, David Maynier, suggested using a definition in Canadian law and argued that with precision the bill could be unconstitutional. Landers disagreed.

Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Ambrosini said if there was no definition, at least the bill should say classification should be confined to times when there was “clear and present danger.” African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart said that the parties had been very close to a compromise definition.

Some 800 protesters marched to the Constitution Hill in Johannesburg over the weekend with the “stop and scrap it,” according to a media report.

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