Brushing aside last-minute objections from some of the leading figures of the anti-apartheid struggle, the South African Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a new secrecy law that critics say is designed to shield a corrupt elite from press scrutiny.
Using its substantial parliamentary majority, the governing African National Congress secured the vote by 229-107, news reports said. Opponents of the legislation — the Protection of Information Bill — have said they will challenge it at the Constitutional Court once President Jacob Zuma signs it into law, as he is widely expected to.
Opponents of the legislation had declared the day of the parliamentary ballot “Black Tuesday,” evoking memories of a similarly titled press crackdown in the 1970s under white rule.
Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate and leading figure in the fight to end minority domination, said it was “insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism.”
The office of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president and emblem of the struggle for democracy, said the draft law is “not yet at a point where it can be said to have met” constitutional standards. The proposed legislation has drawn wide criticism from editors, journalists, church groups and well-known writers including Nadine Gordimer, who is also a Nobel laureate.
The law, which has fueled passionate debate since it was first introduced by the A.N.C. in 2008, says secrecy is sometimes needed 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.”
The A.N.C. says a new law is needed to replace apartheid-era secrecy legislation. The new legislation also makes it an offense for officials to withhold information to cloak misbehavior or avoid embarrassment.
Since the introduction of the draft law, the party. has responded to howls of protest by modifying the proposed legislation, which foresees jail terms of up to 25 years for offenders. But the changes, specifically limiting the number of government agencies able to classify information as secret and therefore legally protected, have not silenced its critics.
The Right2Know advocacy group of some 400 organizations and 16,000 individuals, set up to oppose the law, says the legislation could enable “the future use of State Security agencies for party political and factionalist purposes that could see South Africa moving backwards to the kind of secret society that so many fought so hard against.”
Underpinning the debate is a profound mutual mistrust between the government and newspapers, which have frequently uncovered cases of official corruption.
The mistrust deepened last week, when The Mail & Guardian, a leading newspaper, said it had been prevented by threats of criminal prosecution from publishing a report concerning Mac Maharaj, an A.N.C. veteran and presidential spokesman.