JOHANNESBURG, Nov 21 (Reuters) - South Africa’s parliament is to vote on a state secrets law this week that has been widely criticised as an attempt to muzzle media and intimidate whistle blowers who would face stiff prison sentences for releasing classified documents.
The measures, to be voted on in parliament on Tuesday, come amid growing concerns of cronyism and corruption in President Jacob Zuma’s government.
The following is a look at the law and how it relates to corruption allegations under Zuma:
The new law, if passed, could greatly impact on the reporting of a decade-old arms deal that has led to convictions of several prominent figures for bribery. Many revelations came to light from media reports of secret documents. Such reporting under the new law could result in a jail term.
The 30-billion-rand ($3.6-billion) deal to buy European military equipment from about a decade ago has clouded South Africa’s politics for years.
Critics have said the initial investigation left many unanswered questions especially after the police’s investigative unit, the Scorpions, was disbanded amid speculation it was getting too close to centres of power.
Many of those implicated are now ruling African National Congress (ANC) power brokers.
Zuma - then deputy president - was linked to the deal through his former financial adviser, who was jailed for corruption. This almost torpedoed Zuma’s bid for high office but all charges against Zuma were dropped in 2009.
Zuma’s adviser Schabir Shaik was convicted in 2005 of trying to solicit a 500,000 rand ($61,000) a year bribe from French arms company Thint in return for protecting it from an investigation.
At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported Mac Maharaj, now presidential spokesman and former transport minister, received 1.2 million French francs paid to his wife to facilitate the deal. Maharaj denies any wrongdoing.
Zuma said in September he would appointed a commission to investigate the arms deal. Critics said Zuma acted to dictate the terms of the investigation ahead of a separate case in courts that could also have led to a fresh investigation outside of his control.
The main backer of the secrecy law is State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, whose ability to carry out his duties was questioned after his wife was convicted in May of running an international drug ring.
Opposition politicians have called for the minister’s resignation, saying if Cwele was unaware of his wife’s illicit activity, he should not serve as the person responsible for security and gathering intelligence.
South Africa is conducting a defence review that could lead to a new round of arms procurements. The review committee has among its members Tony Yengeni, a former ANC chief parliamentary whip who was implicated in the shady arms deal. Secret details of its proceedings could result in criminal charges against journalists who report on them.
One of the greatest worries about the new secrecy law is that it will be used to classify information about sweetheart deals that benefit the politically connected.
Zuma was forced to sack one minister and suspend his police chief after they were named in a government report as signing off on inflated lease deals for police buildings that benefited a real estate tycoon with close ties to the ANC.
Zuma’s son Duduzane is being investigated for possible fraud related to the issue of prospecting rights, which critics said raised questions about the mining ministry’s integrity.
Many members of Zuma’s cabinet have faced accusations of using state funds to buy themselves fancy cars for work. The opposition Democratic Alliance said the Zuma government has spent more than $10 million on luxury cars.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Mmathabo Tladi