Our government repeats the great sins of the past too readily

Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president of South Africa in 1994. (Walter Dhladhla)

Nelson Mandela's inauguration as president of South Africa in 1994. (Walter Dhladhla)

In 1994 the first democratic leader of our country, Nelson Mandela, proclaimed in his inaugural address to the nation that this country would never repeat the racist, repressive rule of the past. Our Constitution of 1996 proclaimed with hope and majesty that South Africa would be governed in a way that promoted accountability, transparency and integrity.

The road to a sustainable vibrant democracy was never going to be smooth. The burdens of our past weighed heavily upon our commitment to ensure freedom and substantive equality for all.
While democracies do not necessarily guarantee the responsiveness of the elite who govern to the views of the governed, at its best democracy promotes mechanisms to hold the government accountable for its conduct and, if necessary, to ensure the real possibility of obtaining significant change. That is why the accountability of the executive is vital to the sustainability of democracy, together with freedom of information and expression, which provide the leverage to ensure the required transparency.

Sadly, last week's newspapers told it all: these fundamental values of transparency and accountability in the governance of this country are under huge threat. Within 20 years, the "never" is now everywhere.

The government employs a battery of apartheid legislation to ensure that the public is kept in the dark. To the extent that any inquiry is conducted into matters of public importance, the public must be the last to know anything of significance. Those alleged to have committed criminal acts or, at the least, of whom it is claimed that they have conducted themselves in a manner that is at war with their public obligations, are protected and never dream of going on "garden leave" pending a determination of the allegations made against them.

For starters, it is surely plain that the R200-million-and-change of public funds that has been spent on Nkandla is of immense public importance. After all, the public is entitled to know about its money when it is spent on the president's home, particularly when the minister of finance is telling the nation about the pressing need and thus commitment of the government to curb public expenditure. But the government wishes to keep the report of the public protector away from its taxpayers, seemingly for as long as possible. To do so, it invokes legislation from our repressive past, the National Key Points Act, to buttress its case. In 1994, we the people of this country were entitled to assume that never again would the government of South Africa employ the "security of the state" argument to destroy access to information that would, in turn, promote freedom of expression of the citizenry – in this case, to debate whether the government has behaved with the requisite prudence and integrity.

And what could the compromising information in the report of the public protector be that so desperately triggered the decision to suppress? And will the public ever come to see the full contents of the report?

Meanwhile, the national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, who has lurched through crisis after crises in her short term, has also busied herself with the suppression of information. Through the offices of the SAPS she has tried to ensure the inaccessibility to the public of key correspondence about the allegation that she tipped off Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer about an investigation into his alleged links with the underworld.

Again, the two vital freedoms of expression and information are sacrificed on the altar of apartheid laws. Worse, the allegation against Lamoer has now been known for some time, but he continues in his post. The police in the Western Cape, notwithstanding litigation from the minister of police and commissioner of police to subvert the process, are now the subject of a provincial commission of inquiry.

Within this fraught context it truly reflects an attitude of contempt for the Constitution that Lamoer has not been placed on leave pending the outcome of an independent enquiry into these allegations.

These are but two examples of the determined efforts of those in power to ensure that the public is not given the vital information necessary if we are to hold the government accountable to the citizenry. To this can be added the Guptas and their use of a military airport, the "spy tapes", the Zimbabwe election reports of justices Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Khampepe, the refusal of the department of public works to disclose documentation about Nkandla and the saga around suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli.

All the positive reports from Goldman Sachs about economic and social progress, of which we as a nation can be proud, will amount to little if these practices of suppression of information and lack of accountability continue to grow as exponentially as they are growing now.

Serjeant at the Bar

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