Govt's drift towards secrecy

Jan-Jan Joubert argues that secrecy is often a problem in and of itself

In the dying months of her tenure as Minister of Defence, Lindiwe Sisulu continuously refused to divulge the details and, more importantly, the costs of the air travel she had undertaken and for which the tax payer had to foot the bill. This she did for security reasons, she claimed, leading the way for many of her Cabinet colleagues to use the same lame excuse.

One of her last answers to a parliamentary question as Defence Minister was to finally admit that her flying habits had cost us as taxpayers R40 million. Whether such an expense is merited is a discussion for another day. What I would like to argue here is that whilst divulging this information may have embarrassed the Minister, it has not jeopardized anyone's safety, or the national interest, in the least.

Sensible people had of course suspected this for a long time, but the Minister, for many months, used the concepts of security and the national interest as fig-leaves to hide potentially damaging information.

Had she not, in a fit of fancy and pique (for in the same series of answers she also divulged the flight costs of the man about to move her out of her portfolio, President Jacob Zuma) suddenly decided to share the information, it would have been hidden from us on a premise surely now shown not to hold any water.

The same Minister was always reluctant to substantively answer parliamentary questions on the defence force. Maybe Sisulu's successor, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, will be more candid. If so, we might find many a sensible concern regarding our defence force cleared up - even, who knows, proven correct.

The secrecy problem does not end with the defence force. It includes, to name but two other departments, the police and the state security services.

Only this week, a task team found that allegations, by suspended head of police crime intelligence Richard Mdluli, of a political plot against him by four senior police colleagues were devoid of truth. Yet this man who, when in trouble, did not hesitate to make the most damaging untrue claims about those he viewed as adversaries, was until recently trusted to head that part of the police whose work is most shrouded in secrecy. Until recently his judgement on such issues, now showed up as being nil when the heat is on, would have stood. How often has this happened before? What has the effect been on the lives of others? 

The same goes for the Department of State Security. We really, really do not know what they spend our money on. Parliamentary oversight there might be (or not, who knows, as the alleged oversight itself is conducted by a joint standing committee behind closed doors), but public oversight there is not. Every so often a tiff develops between the top spies, some details emerge, the nation is astounded by the personal pettiness and the sums wasted, the issue dies down, and the show moves on.

One truly hopes Mapisa-Nqakula will stop her predecessor's efforts at copying State Security's joint standing committee model for the Department of Defence as swiftly as she stopped the proposed acquisition of the new presidential jet. Confidential oversight does not work in practice. It breeds an arrogance born of power unchecked by public accountability which can at times be quite breathtaking in its flippancy.

Let's use State Security as an example once more, to prove the point:

Watching acting Director General of State Security Dennis Dlomo reject every single proposed amendment to the Protection of State Information Bill (also known as the Secrecy Bill) on behalf of his department during recent parliamentary hearings made me very uneasy. Amongst others, every university, every law society, every trade union, every opposition party, the Public Protector, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Legal Resources Centre and every newspaper oppose the Bill. Yet the Department could not find merit enough in any of these views to willingly change its stance on a single clause of the proposed legislation.

It strengthens every reservation about a proposed process so inherently dependent upon the honesty and open-mindedness of officials when they consider whether a document was correctly classified, and whether its contents should remain hidden from us - the taxpayers funding its compilation and the possible execution of its recommendations.

No wonder then that the NCOP committee considering the Bill requested another extension of the deadline by which the Bill must be finalised. One senses a growing reluctance by many ANC MPs to pass a Bill which is so manifestly wrong. Whether they will nonetheless be browbeaten into passing it only time will tell.

To classify information is to hide it from the general population. The question South Africans should ask, is how much information should be hidden from the people, especially outside times of war. What does Government have to hide? And what should they be allowed to hide?

The answer is surely as little as possible. This is a serious issue. People's rights are more likely to be impeded where information can be withheld or classified.

Too many politicians and officials are unwilling or unable to distinguish between what is damaging to the national interest and what is embarrassing to the powerful. Therein lies grave danger. Indeed, secrecy is all too often the problem, in and of itself.

One hopes Sisulu's eventual answer on flight costs and the finding on Mdluli's accusations will raise even more red flags over efforts to curb the flow of information. This applies especially to the Protection of State Information Bill and efforts to move the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Defence behind closed doors.

Jan-Jan Joubert is Beeld's political editor. This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter