State centralisation

2008-05-23 00:00

Secrecy and centralised control were cornerstones of the apartheid system and fiercely opposed by the democratic movement. An open, participative state respecting the potential contribution of each South African citizen was the aim. Yet, 14 years after liberation, old battles are being renewed.

Minister of Public Enterprises, Alec Erwin, proposes reduced parliamentary oversight of state-owned concerns such as South African Airways and Eskom. This is an extraordinarily high-handed step to take when public confidence in their managements is at an all-time low. Erwin claims that information about these businesses is highly sensitive and should be treated in the same way as national intelligence matters. The minister alone will decide what Parliament and the public may know.

Meanwhile Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, is in the process of neutering the Medicines Control Council. The scientific body that tests drugs will no longer have the final say: the minister will determine which will, and will not, be registered. This proposed move has infuriated the medical profession: it believes such decisions exceed the competence of a single politician.

Political interference with information that belongs in the public domain and with the business of professionals is a matter for deep public concern. Nor are these isolated examples. The government is increasingly adopting an attitude of all knowing. Its actions are consequently appearing more and more arrogant.

The politicians who launched South Africa into its democratic age carried with them considerable public goodwill and confidence. That has steadily eroded to a point where there is mounting anger among the watchdogs of civil society and professionals about political interference. There is a general sense that politicians are deliberately distancing themselves from the complex processes that constitute a real, living democracy.

Each case that concentrates authority and conceals information undermines the democratic gains people fought so hard to acquire.

Myriad reasons, ranging from national security and commercial practice to tired anti-colonial sentiments are paraded to excuse an increasingly authoritarian and secretive tendency among the governing class. Every specific instance has its worthy protestors. A way must be found to address the bigger picture.

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