Hlengiwe Mnguni

Secrecy breeds paranoia

2010-10-29 07:20

The news delivered by Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan on Wednesday, amongst other announcements that have earned him praise, that in the near future tender processes, at every stage, could be made more transparent has given me a little more confidence in our government's commitment to transparency, even considering on what day it came.

Wednesday was the day that a coalition of organisations under the umbrella of the Right2Know Campaign handed over memorandums to Parliament demanding changes to the proposed protection of information bill.

While criticism of the bill includes many other scary possibilities, including its heavy-handed approach to whistleblowing, it is even scarier that if it is passed by government in its current form it could well be the same as leaving our Constitutional right to public information to the discretion of the Minister of State Security as feared by many.

Of course I doubt that there are many public tenders whose details pose a national security risk should they be exposed, but what the finance minister said demonstrates that, on some level at least, there is some commitment from government to be more transparent and, hopefully, reign in tender fraud, which at this point has left most South Africans flabbergasted with its disregard of common decency and no signs of abating.

The information bill, in its current form, is uncharacteristic of the values and ideals that are the cornerstone of any constitutional democracy, even a young one like ours that still needs to tweak and test some of its laws.

There is nothing unusual about deciding that there are specific things that should not be public knowledge as they may jeopardise national security, but limiting the pool of institutions or individuals that have the power to decide what constitutes national security to the minister goes against the spirit of transparency, inclusivity and representation.

Minister Cwele has repeatedly said there are no sinister intentions on the part of government in proposing this bill as it is. That may be true. But it must not be taken lightly that where South Africa has come from, and where we find ourselves now, informs our suspicions of activities within government.

For decades, when there was government without democracy, public information was government property and could be used and abused, hidden and distorted at will to carry out some of the worst and brutal human rights violation in the world.

We should also look at where we are. We are a country that has been rocked by a series of high-profile corruption cases. The biggest (the arms deal) spawned a web so wide it even tainted the president.

We have never been a society that could comfortably, with no reservations, leave information about how and why decisions are made to our leaders, unfortunately. But then again, very few (if any) countries can boast that confidence.

A progressive government should always be making attempts at expanding access to information for its citizens, not setting out more limitations.

Changes suggested by rights groups, including the setting up of an independent body appointed by parliament to temper the powers of the minister, should be seriously considered by government so that we not only preserve our image as a regional leader in transparency and inclusivity, but also so that we do not degenerate into a paranoid society that views its government with distrust and suspicion - even where none is called for.

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