Nkandla plot thickens

2013-07-01 10:00

The secrecy bill will give the president the right to remain tight-lipped, write David Lewis and Nicola Whittaker

Opposition to the Protection of State Information Bill led by the Right2Know campaign has extracted some seemingly important gains, not least the creation of a criminal offence for classifying information to cover up a crime, expressly including corruption.

This is meant to assure opponents of the bill that the law will only be used to protect information the publication of which would threaten national security.

In reality, this provision doesn’t amount to much. The criminal justice authorities would have to prosecute a classification that contravened the act.

Could one imagine the police investigating and the National Prosecuting Authority prosecuting a minister who used the act to cover up corruption?

But in real life, the state has just sent a clear signal that it will use the secrecy bill to bury information that has absolutely nothing to do with protecting state security.

In a ploy as sinister as it is cynical, Minister of State Security, Siyabonga Cwele, has invoked the Minimum Information Security Standards to withhold from public scrutiny (including that of the Public Protector and the Auditor-General) its report on the “security upgrade” at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence.

This comes after assurances by Nxesi and his deputy, Jeremy Cronin, that the report would be made public. The report has been classified “top secret”. This is the most restricted classification, only to be invoked when publication of the information in question would “neutralise the objectives and functions of institutions and/or state”.

It’s cynical because there is no way all the information, and particularly that in which the public has an interest, could even be classified

“confidential” (the least restricted classification), much less “top secret”.

In our requests for the report, we told Nxesi we were interested in why the upgrade had cost such an obscene amount.

We told him we were particularly interested in knowing how and by whom the construction services were acquired. By no stretch of the imagination do these questions have any bearing on state security considerations.

Our interest is piqued by Nxesi’s own acknowledgement of procurement irregularities in the Nkandla upgrade. And it’s sinister because this classification will, says the State Security Agency, be overtaken by the secrecy bill when it comes into force.

If the state is prepared to use a nonbinding policy, or for that matter an apartheid-era statute, to hide information that manifestly has no relation to security, then how much more likely is it to use a new statutory instrument to achieve the same objective?

Those who have insisted on attributing sinister motives to the secrecy bill are vindicated by this cynical classification. It also vindicates the suspicions of those who believe there is corruption at the heart of the R200?million plus spent on the Nkandla upgrade.

Why otherwise classify information regarding state expenditure and procurement that clearly has no bearing on security? The clear inference is that the classification is being used to cover up a crime of corruption.

So what’s to be done?

There’s the Promotion of Access to Information Act route, and the prospect of success in obtaining at least a redacted version of the report.

Given the inevitable resistance we are facing and the time-consuming litigation process necessary to challenge it, it doesn’t seem viable.

By the time the report is released, President Zuma will probably have retired to his publicly funded residence and those who benefited from the procurement process will have banked their gains.

The most effective way of securing thisreport is through unrelenting public pressure.

Corruption Watch provides a voice to those outraged by corruption.

Use these platforms to express your views on Nkandla and to report your experiences of corruption. If our voices are loud enough, they will be heard.

»?Lewis is executive director and Whittaker is head of policy services at Corruption Watch

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