Durban council approves controversial ‘secrecy’ by-law

New eThekwini Municipality mayor Zandile Gumede.
New eThekwini Municipality mayor Zandile Gumede.

The Durban city council has approved a controversial by-law which could effectively ban the media and the public from attending some of its crucial meetings.

The approval comes despite strong objection from opposition parties and civil society organisations — and even a demonstration by civil society organisations outside Durban’s International Convention Centre on Wednesday against the adoption of Rules of Order Amendment By-Law did not stop the ANC-controlled eThekwini municipality from voting in favour of the law.

The DA also tried unsuccessfully to push for another debate on the amendments before any voting could take place‚ but were overruled by council speaker William Mapena who said the matter had been deferred in October for voting.

In a statement issued late on Wednesday‚ the city dismissed claims by the opposition and civil society organisations that the by-law was unconstitutional as incorrect and said that there was nothing untoward about the amendment.

“Section 160 of the Constitution as well as Section 20 of the Municipal Systems Act provides clear guidelines for holding municipal meetings. Both legislation states that a municipal committee or council must open their meeting to the public. However‚ the legislation further provides for certain meetings to be closed to the public subject to the nature of the issues being discussed‚” said the city’s head of communications Tozi Mthethwa.

The adoption of the by-law now effectively means that the city may close its meetings to the public and the media if there might be a disclosure of:
- Confidential information regarding any person;
- Any investigation‚ report or internal audit report that could be compromised by its public disclosure; and
- There may be disclosure of trade secrets of the municipality or financial‚ business‚ scientific or technical information which is likely to cause prejudice to the business or interests of the municipality.
But civil society groups and the opposition indicated they would consider challenging the by-law in court.

Meanwhile‚ the DA’s Nicole Graham said the adoption of the law pointed towards the ANC-led council heading down a dangerous path.

“The proposed amendment by-law is a threat to the democratic functioning of the council. It allows for arbitrary and autocratic decision making by the Speaker and committee chairs‚ gags councillors and the media and would derail the functioning of the council. This council is increasingly disorderly and undemocratic‚” she said.