JOHANNESBURG — The governing African National Congress pushed a bill through South Africa's parliament Tuesday to protect state secrets, despite strong objections from opposition politicians who included white conservatives and black nationalists who were enemies under apartheid.
Opponents, who include church and business leaders and Nobel laureates, say the measure will keep government corruption under wraps, stifle whistle-blowing and undermine the hard-won democracy created with apartheid's end 17 years ago. The ANC says South Africa needed to update apartheid-era legislation defining secrets and setting out punishments for divulging them, and that it has no intention of trampling on free expression and a muckraking media.
Opponents had expected parliament, where the ANC has a large majority, to approve the bill. They were already preparing to challenge the measure at the Constitutional Court if it becomes law.
Tuesday's 229-107 vote, during a lively session that saw ANC and opposition politicians trading barbs, came after months of fierce debate. The bill's critics included two Nobel prizewinners: retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a peace laureate, and literature laureate Nadine Gordimer.
The office of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first post-apartheid president and also a Nobel peace laureate, also has expressed reservations about the bill.
Parliament's upper house could ask for revisions, but that rarely happens. President Jacob Zuma will have to sign the bill to make it law, and while his legal advisers may ask for revisions, he was expected to approve the measure.
Critics donned black and staged protests at the ANC's downtown Johannesburg headquarters during morning rush hour Tuesday, and in the afternoon outside parliament in Cape Town as lawmakers voted, saying the bill's weaknesses include its lack of a provision allowing those who break the law to avoid going to jail if they could argue they acted in the public interest.
Activists fear the adoption of the measure in a country known for one of the continent's freest and most open constitutions could influence other governments in the region.
Mukelani Dimba, a South African democracy activist who has lobbied against the bill, said post-apartheid lawmakers were initially eager to differentiate themselves from white racist politicians, adopting not only the constitution but a range of liberal laws. But over the years, he said, progressive ideals have waned.
"We have a ruling power that wants to retain power, and we have to admit that information is power," Dimba said, adding politicians may also resent constant newspaper articles about their wrongdoing.
If implemented, the bill "will unacceptably curtail both the right to access information and freedom of expression, which are the foundation of a democratic society," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The manner in which the government pushed this bill through parliament, instead of proceeding with consultations as promised, as well as the secrecy embedded in this legislation, send very worrying signs about the government's commitment to transparency."
In a statement late Monday, Tutu said it is "insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism ... and that makes the state answerable only to the state."
Tutu won a Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent opposition to white rule. In more recent years, he has been a sharp critic of ANC moves he sees as undermining rule of law and weakening South Africa's fledgling democracy.
Prominent ANC members also have opposed the bill, among them a former state security minister.
The ANC bill says "information that is accessible to all is the basis of a transparent, open and democratic society," but says secrecy is sometimes necessary to "save lives, to enhance and to protect the freedom and security of persons, to bring criminals to justice, to protect the national security and to engage in effective government and diplomacy."
While the bill makes it a crime to divulge state secrets, it also makes it a crime for an official to withhold information to conceal wrongdoing or incompetence, or merely to avoid embarrassment.
In June, the ANC backed down on some of its original proposals, removing mandatory prison sentences for possessing and publishing secrets – though reporters and others could still be jailed for publishing information that officials want kept secret. The ANC also agreed to limit the power to classify secrets to state security agencies, and proposed that an independent official review appeals of state security rulings on classified information.
At times, the rhetoric about the bill appears to have less to do with its merits than with a distrust of government on one side after a series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking officials, including the national police chief; and complaints from politicians of witch hunts by a biased media.
In a speech to parliament last week, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele even raised the possibility that demonstrators who have held peaceful marches to rally opposition to the bill were somehow being used by South Africa's enemies.
The secrets bill is separate from another ANC proposal that has raised concerns – the possible creation of a tribunal that could discipline journalists, with powers to punish that have not yet been spelled out.
Relations between the ANC and the media long have been tense. Last week one of the country's most prominent newspapers, the Mail & Guardian, said it had been unable to publish details about corruption allegations against Mac Maharaj, who was imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Mandela for his anti-apartheid activities and who recently took on the job of presidential spokesman, because of threats of criminal prosecution. Maharaj later announced he was asking police to investigate whether the paper and its journalists had broken the law in their reporting.
Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP