/ 15 April 2011

Protection of information farce

The Mail & Guardian first reported in May last year that officials in the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs were unhappy about what they saw as excessive spending by their minister, Sicelo Shiceka. Among their grievances was the provision of a luxury car to Shiceka’s live-in partner, but the department hit back angrily, saying the car was provided to her in terms of rules set out in chapter five of the Ministerial Handbook.

Then, in November, we published allegations of irregular expenditure made in an internal audit report that red flagged, among other items, florists’ bills, flat-screen televisions, paintings and kitchen utensils bought for the ministerial residence. This time Shiceka complained to the press ombudsman, again saying that the spending was perfectly legitimate.

This week Shiceka’s free-spending ways were in focus again, with the Sunday Times reporting a trip to Switzerland to visit his jailbird girlfriend on the public purse, and a stay in the R55 000 presidential suite of Cape Town’s One & Only hotel. The same justification was trotted out: the Ministerial Handbook allows it.

The handbook, it seemed, was a kind of magical carte blanche, granting senior members of the executive the right to charge just about anything to the fiscus. Since the book seemed to be so important, and so generous, we thought we would check it. That proved difficult. It was “classified”, said Minister of Public Service Administration Richard Baloyi, who told us to submit a Promotion of Access to Information request if we wanted to see it.

This is a claim so bizarre, so patently false and so directly in conflict with the open democracy provisions of the Constitution that we couldn’t believe it. We still don’t. But we didn’t have time to mess about with court applications so we just asked people we thought might have a copy. If you, too, would like to know exactly what it does provide for, you can find it on our website.

The truth, we are pleased to report, is that Cabinet ministers are not allowed to charge the state for paintings, presidential suites and decoders. The whole point of the handbook is that it set limits on ministerial perks and provides a framework for oversight. If the handbook is secret, accountability is impossible and the limits are likely to be treated with contempt.

If we needed any further proof that the Protection of Information Bill would fundamentally undermine democratic principles, this episode provides it. But it also tells us that the campaign for freedom of information and accountability is even broader and more urgent than the campaign against the Bill. Shiceka’s shame is personal, Baloyi’s systemic and political.

If you’re interested in how your ministers can and cannot spend your money, you can download and view the document.

As the Royal Swaziland Police rounded up union leaders, harassed journalists and pelted pro-democracy protesters with tear gas and water canons this week, our government and ruling party seemed paralysed, as they have been for 17 years in the face of King Mswati’s repressive and kleptocratic rule.

That now seems to be changing. The ANC’s head of international relations, Ebrahim Ebrahim, has released a strong statement condemning the crackdown and calling for “normalisation of the political environment”, the unbanning of opposition parties and the release of detained activists.

Making a direct comparison with South Africa’s transition to democracy, Ebrahim’s remarks seem to represent an extraordinary break with the past.

Some scepticism, however, is to be expected. Swaziland was already under emergency rule when the ANC came to power 17 years ago. There have been at least two pro-democracy upsurges in the intervening period, put down in the same brutal way. Yet South Africa continues to conduct normal diplomatic relations with the Swazi regime and to sell arms to its security forces.

The fact is that without South African support, the monarchy would not survive long. Almost three-quarters of the kingdom’s revenue comes through the customs union that South Africa dominates.

But the problem goes further back. It begins with apartheid South Africa’s alliance with the Swazi ruling classes, aimed at rolling back the forces of African nationalism in the region, and Thabo Mbeki’s legacy — most clearly visible in Zimbabwe — of pandering to dictatorships in the name of respect for sovereignty and non-interference.

In the context of deepening economic crisis, precipitated by world recession, an aid drought and diminishing customs union returns, the unaccountable high life of Swaziland’s royal family is morally and politically indefensible.

It is not just that Mswati and his 14 wives drain an estimated R500-million a year from the country’s shrinking budget, in a country of growing poverty and joblessness which has the worst incidence of HIV/Aids in the world. Because opposition parties are banned in Swaziland and the ruling party is the creature of the king no one knows how this money is spent.

Against this backdrop the ANC’s new stance is an enormously encouraging start, but it is just that, a start. The government must now translate this policy into direct use of its financial and diplomatic leverage to force real movement towards real democracy, now.