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Parliament’s IT service accused of blocking land submissions

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As parliamentarians announce an extension to submissions on the draft Bill to amend the Constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation, an advocacy group is fuming that Parliament’s server is blocking land submissions as “unacceptable content”.

Non-profit organisation Dear South Africa says it has received numerous messages from South Africans complaining that e-mails have bounced back from Parliament with a message saying “returned because of unacceptable content”.

Yesterday, the ad hoc committee amending Section 25 of the Constitution resolved to extend the deadline for written submissions from the public on its Bill until 29 February. The initial deadline was today.

Ad hoc committee chairperson Mathole Motshekga said he had been approached as chairman to extend the deadline because people didn’t have time to prepare and make submissions.

“We examined the e-mails and could find nothing offensive or untoward in them, unless opposition to land expropriation is deemed unacceptable,” says 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.”

The organisation says of the roughly 155 000 submissions channelled through Dear South Africa, more than 80% oppose the proposed amendments of Section 25 of the Constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation.

Hutchinson says Parliament’s rejection of submissions could be as a result of technical issues, with its “spam filter” set too high. Spam filters are set to identify potentially offensive e-mail sources or keywords. None of the rejected e-mails have any offensive content, and all were sent from reputable servers, such as Gmail and Telkom, he says.

Human rights lawyer Mark Oppenheimer says: “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.

“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.”

Dear South Africa says several non-governmental organisations have already threatened a Constitutional challenge against any amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution.

“The fact that Parliament’s servers are rejecting submissions for ‘unacceptable content’ would strengthen any challenge against government,” it notes.

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.

“The nature of the undesirable content contained or embedded on the said e-mail cannot be established anymore as the ISP keeps records of such blocks for a maximum period of three days. The e-mail was blocked on or around 9 December 2019.”

Yesterday, a senior official from the department told an ad hoc committee that an investigation showed that in the last three days, 46 e-mails were blocked by the system. This was a general information security measure whereby the system blocks incoming mail that may have a virus.

Hutchinson says it is worrying that Parliament’s IT service is blocking e-mails based on their domain origin, but this cannot account for blocking e-mails originating from Gmail, Telkom and other reputable sources.

Parliament’s IT service says it has increased its mailbox size by 100% to cater for the anticipated influx of e-mails.

“Our concern is that Parliament may not like the message it is hearing from South Africans. Opposition to the land expropriation issue is growing, and South Africans believe jobs – not access to land – is the biggest challenge we face. We cannot have a tainted process where government ignores the will of the people, or where it – consciously or not – tries to skew the outcome of the public participation process,” says Hutchinson.

Meanwhile, EFF parliamentarian Mbuyiseni Ndlozi proposed that a WhatsApp line be created, as an additional platform for submissions, saying it’s more accessible, especially to the youth.

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