The South African civil society response to the recently tabled Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terrorist and Related Activities Bill (2004), known initially as the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB), raises a number of critical questions around the effectiveness of public participation in resisting a controversial bill appearing before parliament for consideration. The outcomes of this particular process have implications for how civil society may respond to similarly proposed legislation in future.
This paper attempts to analyse the nature and context of the public’s engagement with the ATB, by firstly tracing very briefly, its history, and then examining the levels of resistance to the bill, and the interesting civil society dynamics that emerged from the various national alliances that were formed in an effort to respond to the bill. We will argue that this process was somewhat unprecedented in the post 1994 period, particularly within the context of broader civil society participation in the formation of government policy on an issue of such critical national significance. It was unprecedented because never before has there been such a concerted effort by civil society to reform or reject a particular piece of legislation.
Moreover, this paper will attempt to understand the reasons that people participated in particular ways, honing in on their differences and similarities. In particular we will argue that participation in this process can be broadly divided into two distinct categories. One being primarily faith based, i.e. the Muslim community and the second, a loose coalition of journalists, unionists, NGOs and activists. This distinction does not reflect the view that there was no confluence of engagement between these groupings, rather that submissions on the bill were generally made along specific group interests. The paper will also look broadly at the effectiveness of their participation as an exercise in advancing democracy and civil liberties, as well as the specific group interests alluded to earlier.
It could be argued that the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 served as a catalyst for many countries, particularly the US and the United Kingdom, and South Africa at a later stage, to consider introducing additional legislation to deal with terrorism. In the case of SA, the government’s argument that the then ATB would bring our country in line with similar international legislation was met with public anger and discontent from time of the introduction of the draft bill in 2002. The resistance stemmed primarily from the fact that draconian powers would be given to our law enforcement agencies to investigate and deal with acts of terror. This in itself recalls the dark days of apartheid where state repression in South Africa resulted in liberation movements being labelled as terrorist groups, and being persecuted through the various organs of the state. The vague description of ‘terrorism’ further fanned fears that the ATB would seriously impact on civil liberties such as the freedom of association, expression, assembly and demonstration.
Given also the experiences of the Muslim and other minority communities in the US, in the wake of such legislation being introduced, illustrated the dangers of these laws being effected and the South African public was understandably nervous about having its own civil liberties curtailed yet again, after years of such treatment under apartheid.
These incidences in the US and elsewhere clearly provided sufficient motivation for those groups feeling potentially most affected, to act. As a result, South African Muslims, together with a range of other interest groups such as COSATU, one of the country’s largest labour union federations, were propelled to undertake a sustained campaign to challenge and engage the government on this bill. What followed was arguably a rare and intriguing partnership forged between faith-based and other non-governmental interest groups, to tackle an issue, which would inevitably affect them and their activities.