CAPE TOWN - The African National Congress's majority muscle was used to force the so-called "secrecy bill" through the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon despite a nationwide protest and last-ditch appeals to MPs and to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to delay voting on the legislation.

The vote was carried in favour of the Protection of State Information Bill, passing by 229 votes to 107 with two abstentions. During declarations of vote, all opposition parties were opposed to the bill, leaving the ANC isolated in its support.

The public and press galleries as well as the opposition benches were filled with people dressed in black for what had been dubbed "Black Tuesday" by those who saw the bill as a blot on South Africa's democracy.

When proceedings began, Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip Watty Watson proposed that the voting on the bill be delayed and that it should be removed from the order paper.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Congress of the People, the African Christian Democratic Party, the Independent Democrats and the Freedom Front Plus all supported the motion, with only the ANC objecting to it.

When it was put to the vote, the ANC's 65% majority saw the attempt to delay the passage of the bill fail.

IFP MP Mario Ambrosini mounted a further attempt to halt the process when he suggested that the bill was improperly before the House. It had been treated as an exclusive national competence when, in fact, it involved the provinces and should have been processed according to section 76 of the constitution, not section 75.

National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu disallowed Mr Ambrosini's point and the voting proceeded.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, DA parliamentary leader, said: "If passed, this bill will unstitch the very fabric of our constitution. It will criminalise the freedoms that so many of our people fought for.

"What will you, the members on that side of the House, tell your grandchildren one day? I know you will tell them that you fought for freedom. But will you also tell them you helped to destroy it?" she said.

Ms Mazibuko added: "Because they will pay the price for your actions today. Let this weigh heavy on your conscience as you cast your vote."

The bill still has to be approved by the National Council of Provinces next year, where Ms Mazibuko said the DA would continue the fight for incisive amendments. If that process failed to produce a new version, she said she would petition President Jacob Zuma not to sign the bill but to send it back to Parliament.

"But if this bill is signed into law, I will lead an application to the Constitutional Court to have the act declared unconstitutional," she added.

OPPOSITION

Several political parties, many NGOs, the anti-bill lobby group Right2Know and the South African National Editors' Forum had voiced their opposition to the bill being passed without a public-interest defence clause that would allow the media to report on matters it deemed of public importance.

Protests took place earlier on Tuesday in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town.

The National Press Club had asked people opposed to the bill to dress in black or wear a black ribbon or armband. It named the campaign "Black Tuesday", based on what is known as "Black Wednesday" - October 19 1977, when the apartheid government banned The World and Sunday World newspapers and Pro Veritas, a Christian publication, as well as almost 20 people and organisations associated with the black consciousness movement.

Yusuf Abramjee, chairman of the press club, said the day would mark the start of a dark time for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and media freedom.

Plein Street and other roads near the parliamentary precinct was awash with black by lunch time as hundreds of people opposed to the bill arrived to join a picket outside Parliament's main entrance.

Almost all those taking part in the protest were dressed in black, and some had sealed their mouths with black tape.

Many carried posters, some of which read "Those who vote for the bill are criminals themselves", "We demand the right to know", "Black Tuesday" and "Censorship is the new black".

Protesters managed to lower the flags to half-mast on two of the four poles at the Plein Street entrance to the parliamentary complex before police officers intervened.

VOW TO CONTINUE

The fight against the bill will continue despite it being passed, people protesting against it in Durban said on Tuesday afternoon.

"Even if they pass the bill today, we will continue fighting against it," said Desmond D'sa, chairman of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, who was addressing about 100 people picketing against the Protection of State Information Bill at Durban City Hall.

Most people who attended the march were journalists carrying placards. One of the placards read: "Apartheid is back".

"We will also support other organisations to take this to the Constitutional Court," Mr D'sa said.

The pickets were also attended by university students and lecturers. Prof Keyan Tomaselli of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Communication, Media & Society said the protest was not a futile exercise. "When people raised concerns about the arms deal, people thought they were wasting their time. Look at what has happened."

Prof Tomaselli said the bill had serious implications for all South Africans. "It will affect every information sector. The researchers and educators will have to check the legislation constantly when they do their jobs."

With SAPA