Lindiwe Sisulu's four big secrets

Jan-Jan Joubert on the defence minister's aversion to democratic accountability

Why does Minister of Defence Lindiwe Sisulu want to keep South Africans in the dark about our Defence Force, and how does her conduct show commitment to the constitutional founding provisions of accountability, responsiveness and openness?

In less than three years as Defence Minister, Sisulu has proven a real barrier to accountability. She has shown a penchant for secrecy and refused taxpayers feedback on the extent to which the billions we spend on defence each year has produced a defence force which is combat-ready. Her haughty handling of the unionisation issue has caused simmering tension in the Defence Force. Her answers to parliamentary questions must rate among the worst in the world. She is attempting to hide away information on all "operational" defence issues - and makes a mockery of the term, with some embarrassing results.

The first of Sisulu's secrets is how Paul Ngobeni, a fugitive from justice in the USA, was appointed, and indeed, why she initially refused to confirm his resignation. After an obfuscating and inconclusive eggdance on how a known fugitive was security vetted by military intelligence, she suspended him after he wrote a disparaging open letter about Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel.

She then reinstated him and then refused to confirm his resignation, despite the public interest because his salary was carried by the taxpayer. Accountability, responsiveness, openness? None of the above.

The second of Sisulu's secrets is the answers to uncomfortable parliamentary questions, which pesky MPs can use to great effect in holding the Cabinet accountable. In South African parliamentary history, no Cabinet member has ever descended to the lowest form of wit quite as readily, often and naturally as Sisulu. She simply will not give the required information.

When an MP asked her why one of our submarines was in the dry dock for repairs, her official answer was where the MP would rather have it repaired. Her response to criticism of her petulant behaviour is to state that her answers need not satisfy the opposition.

Such examples, unfortunately abound, and show incredible disdain for legitimate accountability. This is not to mention her inability to function in parliamentary debate. She often claims the opinions of opposition MPs which differ from hers to be lies and hijacks their speaking time with spurious, silly points of order.

The third of Sisulu's secrets is on the state of readiness of our defence force, for which the taxpayer forks out billions - R37 billion in this financial year. Good luck if you want to find out what that money went towards. Officially, the reason is to keep our enemies (who are they?) guessing. Actually, it might well be to keep the public guessing, rather than admit to what has been done, and, of course, not done.

And it is about to become worse. Sisulu's fourth secret is a real danger to democracy. She is the driving force behind the reactivation of the joint standing committee on defence - an ugly animal which became moribund in more enlightened times. This committee will soon be the only place for parliamentary debate regarding "operational" Defence Force issues.

The reason for her preference should by now surprise no-one: the committee is fully expected to cock a snook at parliamentary oversight by discussing "operational" Defence Force issues only in closed meetings. That means the content of the meeting remains secret, and MPs are bound by the secrecy of the meeting even if proof of major wrongdoing emerges. It renders parliamentary oversight meaningless.

The other example of a committee with such a preference for secrecy should set off every flashing red light for anyone who believes in transparent, accountable democracy. That example is Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, clearly a committee whose unaccountability Sisulu covets.

Do we, as taxpayers, have any clue what the spies spend our money on? No, we don't, because the very concept of oversight is ridiculed by the secrecy of those committee meetings. We only hear about wrongdoing and rumours of wrongdoing every time a personal spat develops among the top spies.

Now, Sisulu wants the same dispensation for "operational issues" in the Defence Force. And what might the definition of operational issues be to this Minister who, were the issues not so serious, could well stand accused of trying to create a defence farce?

A while back, she stated that, as it was an operational issue, the details of Pres Jacob Zuma's flight plans could not be divulged. Her bluster dissipated only when she was reminded that the details were readily available on the internet. Ignorance, clearly, was bliss. Damn internet!

Currently she refuses - yes, because it is an "operational issue" - to tell us what the cost was of having those planes shadow the President to the USA last year. Clearly, in Lindiwe Sisulu's world of secrets, the fact that the taxpayer forked out the money does not mean the taxpayer has the right to know what happened to it.

There also seems to be a basic inability to distinguish between information which threatens national security, and information which embarrasses the Government. Sisulu should not be able to suppress the latter.

Society needs to oppose this Minister's efforts to keep us in the dark about the Defence Force. The world has a long history of coups by defence forces unchecked by true civilian oversight. Also, taxpayers must know what happens to their taxes. Sisulu's undemocratic tendencies and secrecy do not make a healthy contribution to the state of democracy in our beloved country.

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