Something to hide

2013-06-06 00:00

JUST over 30 years ago, a group of urban-geography students took a photograph of the police station in Alexandra Road. Their film was immediately confiscated: the station, they were told, was a national key point. Those were the years when the police state of the seventies phased into the security state of the eighties: the National Key Points Act was a classic piece of securocrat legislation. It was put on the statute book in the aftermath of the spectacular ANC sabotage of eight fuel tanks at Sasolburg and Secunda on Republic Day in 1980.

The act empowered the Minister of Defence to put any place or area under an information embargo, should it appear that its “loss, damage, disruption or demobilisation [might] prejudice the republic”.

His powers were astonishingly broad and effectively without definition. The legislation and regulations clearly address security issues and information about incidents, but there is nothing about photography, and use of the act to control nearby protest suggests that the intention of the law has been consistently abused.

Today, such matters are in the hands of the police, and Minister Nathi Mthethwa has admitted to about 200 key points. Many, it is thought, are fairly recent additions. Mthethwa was responding to an application from the advocacy group Right2Know, under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), for a list of key points. In refusing the request, the minister argued that secrecy is part of the strategy, a bizarre situation in which the government is hiding clues about what it is hiding, a form of duplicate censorship that is more common than realised. The constitutionality of such a situation is highly debatable.

With commendable initiative, R2K is compiling its own database of probable sites, about 100 thus far. Some are clearly signposted, others refer to their status in publications. There appear to be none in Pietermaritzburg except the Transnet fuel pipeline. But in Durban and on the coast, the list includes King Shaka Airport, various oil refineries, the Reserve Bank, Eskom substations, the naval base, and the Umbogintwini AEC plant. It is a strange collection of sites, typical of other provinces and suggestive of expedience.

And there is method in the apparent randomness. Mthethwa admitted to R2K in February that the police are generally not involved in protecting key points. Discounting military installations, this means hefty contracts for the private security sector. And with no public-interest defence for whistle-blowers, tight confidentiality leaves the field wide open to corruption.

The possibility that this could be so is illustrated by the inconsistent way in which the law is applied. Why do some sites, such as the SABC at Auckland Park, publicly proclaim their status if the list is secret?

In 2004, Alec Erwin made his famous reference to the loose bolt at Koeberg, while President Jacob Zuma has referred to bunkers and bulletproof windows at his private Nkandla home, possibly the most controversial key point of all. Both were technically in breach of the act, suggesting that sudden concern about the list’s confidentiality is a tactical ploy, nothing to do with security, but designed to cover up embarrassment.

By invoking privacy clauses of the PAIA for his refusal to release information to R2K, Mthethwa provided an interesting clue.

It was backed up by the police admission that many key points are privately owned. Companies thus have licence to operate without close public scrutiny and are effectively self-regulating.

Notorious examples are the petrochemical plants of south Durban, where there are serious concerns about pollution, environmental hazards and safety issues affecting nearby suburbs. Photographers have been obstructed in documenting these problems. It is perhaps no coincidence that schools in the vicinity of the Umbogintwini AEC polymer plant have been affected by chlorine clouds.

Similarly, rights to protest have been limited under the Key Points Act. In 2003, picketing by transport workers at Cape Town Airport resulted in 36 arrests, and in 2007, a Treatment Action Campaign protest outside the Reserve Bank was declared illegal. It has often taken incidents like these to reveal the very existence of key points. Another example is the office of the National Energy Regulator, where a demonstration was prohibited.

At present, key points may be declared virtually anywhere under the guise of national security simply because there is something to hide from the public.

Use of the enabling legislation has moved seamlessly from the needs of apartheid securocrats to those of the security cluster of the Zuma government dragging along its exile baggage.

Excessive, stifling confidentiality is the default position, yet information is the oxygen of demo- cracy.

Mthethwa last week announced a welcome thorough review of the National Key Points Act. And when Parliament debates this redundant legislation tomorrow, it should address not only its specifics, but also its context and the danger it poses to our civil rights.


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