Picture: 123RF/STOCK PICTURE
Picture: 123RF/STOCK PICTURE

Parliament has been accused of blocking land expropriation submissions which are deemed to contain “unacceptable content”.

The deadline for submissions is January 31.

“With the call for comment closing on Friday, parliament’s servers appear not to like the messages they hear from the public on land expropriation,” said non-profit organisation  Dear South Africa, which opposes any amendment of  section 25 of the constitution, or the property clause.

The land expropriation issue has polarised the country and spooked investors.

Parliament’s ad hoc committee looking into the matter has published the draft bill to amend section 25 to allow for expropriation without compensation. It aims to  tackle skewed land ownership patterns dating back to the apartheid and colonial eras.

The ANC recently proposed a drastic change shifting the arbitration powers from the courts to the executive in terms of compensation to be paid. The ANC’s Mathole Motshekga, who chairs parliament’s ad hoc committee on land reform, said last week that if the courts are to determine compensation “it will take another 25 or 50 years to sort out land reform”.

Dear South Africa said it had received numerous messages from South Africans that e-mails have bounced back from parliament with a message saying “returned because of unacceptable content”.

“We examined the e-mails and could find nothing offensive or untoward in them, unless opposition to land expropriation is deemed unacceptable,” said Dear South Africa founder Rob Hutchinson.

“As a participative democracy organisation, we are completely agnostic on the question of land expropriation, but we want to make sure that as many voices as possible are heard on this vital issue for the country. It is, therefore, a concern to us that messages are being returned which are deemed to have unacceptable content.”

Of the roughly 155,000 submissions channelled through Dear South Africa, more than 80% oppose the proposed amendment to the property clause. This compares with the 57% who were opposed to land expropriation when Dear South Africa conducted a similar public participation campaign in 2019.

Hutchinson said parliament’s “rejection” of submissions could be the result of technical issues, such as its “spam filter” set too high. Spam filters identify potentially offensive e-mail sources or keywords. But none of the rejected e-mails had any offensive content and all were sent from reputable servers, such as Gmail and Telkom, said Hutchinson

“Section 74 of the constitution imposes an obligation on parliament to facilitate and encourage public participation. The fact that e-mails are being rejected at all violates this obligation,” said human rights lawyer Mark Oppenheimer.

“This is clearly an emotive issue for a lot of people, and they want their voices to be heard. This is the first time that the Bill of Rights in the constitution has been amended, and the fact that parliament tried to smuggle it through in the middle of December — just before the holidays — shows bad intent.”

Several non-governmental organisations have already threatened a constitutional challenge against any amendments to section 25. The allegation that parliament’s servers are rejecting submissions for “unacceptable content” would strengthen any challenge against government.

Parliament’s IT department responded to one complaint, saying the e-mail “was blocked from reaching our servers because it was flagged for containing content that is undesirable by the proactive filters deployed at our internet Service Provider (ISP) e-Networks”.

Parliament’s spokesperson could not be immediately reached for further comment.

The ad hoc committee is due to meet on Thursday to finalise its programme for public hearings.

Phakathib@businesslive.co.za