The fight between Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and the security cluster is about much more than her provisional report into state expenditure at President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla homestead.
It signals the start of a new war between openness and accountability, on the one hand, and secrecy, cloaked in the garb of security, on the other. And it is clear that the Protection of State Information Bill – the so-called secrecy Bill – passed for the third time in the National Assembly this week, opens up a dangerous new front in that war.
Last Friday, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa approached the Pretoria high court to interdict Madonsela from releasing the draft report, purportedly in a quest for more time.
In effect, though, he sought to block the release until the security cluster ministers were satisfied with the way she had accommodated their concerns about allegedly sensitive information.
What emerges starkly in the court papers is that the ministers believe any document that draws on classified information must itself be classified. In his founding affidavit, Mthethwa in effect threatened criminal sanction should Madonsela release an uncensored draft report to other “affected, implicated and interested parties” to obtain their responses.
Principle of secrecy
He warned: “Release of the provisional report to third parties … without prior authorisation of [the ministers] … is unlawful and carries … a criminal penalty.”
Mthethwa’s affidavit attached an earlier letter to Madonsela from Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, also on behalf of the defence, police and state security ministers.
Nxesi made the point explicitly: “As neither I, nor the ministers involved, have given the necessary permission to declassify the documentation relied upon by you in your provisional report, we deem it necessary to inform you that to release your provisional report without our authorisation would, in effect, result in … a contravention of section 4 of the National Key Points Act, 102 of 1980, and section 4 of the Protection of Information Act, 84 of 1982.”
Nowhere did Mthethwa refer to any specific contents of the draft report to justify the claim that the president’s security was at risk.
What really seems to be at stake is the principle of secrecy – and who gets to pronounce on it.
In her stinging reply, Madonsela said the ministers did not cite a “single fact” to illustrate how the president’s safety would be compromised by the disclosure of the draft report.
In his second affidavit, tabled on Thursday, Mthethwa sidestepped that challenge, claiming it was irrelevant to the request for more time.
In their reply, the ministers abandoned their interdict, citing the fact that Madonsela, in asking for the matter to be postponed until November 15, had in effect given them the extra time they asked for.
But it would be a mistake to see this as a final climb-down instead of a tactical retreat.
Further litigation to come?
In his second affidavit, Mthethwa foreshadows potential further litigation, stating: “It will be argued at an appropriate time, when the need arises, that the [public protector], not being an expert on matters of security, cannot be an arbiter on whether or not there exists a security breach from the contents of the provisional report … Should the respondent arrogate to herself that power to determine whether or not there is a breach of security arising from the contents of her provisional report, I am advised that she will in law be acting ultra vires her powers and the law.”
In short, ministers, not Madonsela, must decide whether the report breaches security.
Mthethwa adds: “The classified and top-secret information extracted by [the public protector] in her provisional report … is governed by the minimum information security standards, and it is those classified and top-secret documents and/or extracts that require the minister to authorise its further publication.”
Clearly, no authorisation has been granted. If Madonsela does not excise what they ask her to, there appears to be a real chance the security cluster will return to court.
The state security department itself accepts that apartheid-era laws the ministers rely on are probably unconstitutional, making the ministers’ attempt to exert their authority over Madonsela something of a reach.
That will change when the secrecy Bill is signed into law – which the president could do any day now.
The new Act specifies that the state security minister will make regulations governing how chapter nine institutions – including the public protector and the auditor general – will be allowed to access and use classified information.
The push for a security curtain was echoed in the report of the Joint Standing Committee of Intelligence (JSCI), which released its Nkandla report on Thursday.
After the outcry over the expenditure – about R210-million – in November 2012, the public works minister appointed a government task team to investigate. Its report – classified as top secret – was delivered to Nxesi in January.
In June, the report was referred to the JSCI, which usually carries out oversight of the intelligence services.
An opinion from the parliamentary legal adviser recommended the JSCI restrict itself to matters to do with security oversight, redact sensitive information and then refer the report to the National Assembly.
The JSCI ignored this advice, endorsed the top-secret classification and even recommended that any new information uncovered should be referred back to the JSCI for consideration behind closed doors.
It notes: “Matters relating to the allocation of tenders … should be referred to the office of the auditor general for a full investigation … However, the JSCI believes that because of the classification aspects of the subject matter, the auditor general should report on this investigation to the JSCI.”
Of even more concern is how the JSCI parrots the ministers’ line in their interaction with Madonsela.
A sign of things to come
In a veiled reference to her, the JSCI notes: “Entities which have investigative powers … should not be inappropriately motivated … to launch into an investigation on a matter which has already been assigned to another entity. It is therefore recommended that the executive give urgent attention to this matter … so that unnecessary parallel investigations can be avoided.”
This was precisely the argument the ministers used to try to discourage Madonsela’s Nkandla investigation.
In a letter to Madonsela in April, the state attorney referred to her meeting with the ministers and noted: “The purpose … was to discuss with you our concerns regarding parallel investigations …”
He said a draft proclamation for the Special Investigating Unit to take up the matter had already been sent to the president and a request for an Nkandla audit had been addressed to the auditor general. “Our clients, therefore, propose … that you hold your investigation in abeyance until the processes embarked upon have been completed.”
Madonsela said in her affidavit this week that the auditor general’s audit had not materialised, nor had the Special Investigating Unit yet been authorised to investigate.
Public protector uses M&G case to defend interdict proceedings against her
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism’s partly successful struggle to access records about Nkandla came into contention this week in the dispute between Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and the ministers trying to interdict her.
The centre, known as amaBhungane, obtained 12 000 pages of evidence from the department of public works, which was responsible for the R210-million upgrade, after taking it to court in a protracted dispute over access to information.
AmaBhungane maintains that the department withheld high-level documents. Its lawyers argued in the Pretoria high court that the matter should be referred for oral evidence so that officials can be cross-examined about missing documents.
In answering amaBhungane’s application, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi and his department maintained that the records were the same, bar very limited redactions for security reasons, as those disclosed to Madonsela.
Madonsela used this assertion in her defence when Nxesi and the ministers of police, defence and state security brought interdict proceedings against her.
She attached part of the court record in the amaBhungane matter to her answering affidavit, arguing her report could hardly breach security if it drew from the same documents that had been provided to a media institution.
Madonsela stated: “It is my understanding that the same documents as were provided to me have been provided to [amaBhungane] … It is not apparent to me that this would have happened had there been any concern regarding secrecy such as is now suggested as a reason for my provisional report not to be disclosed.”
AmaBhungane this week released all 12 000 pages obtained from the department, given the public interest in the matter.
• Disclosure: the authors are directly involved in amaBhungane’s litigation with the public works minister and department. – AmaBhungane reporters
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.