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Secrecy destroys accountability

Seeing the repeated use of the words "security cluster" – as in "the security cluster ministers" – in the media over the past week reminded one irresistibly that, in combination with a four-letter word, the term "cluster" has a much ruder, slangier usage too.

And that pejorative seems appropriate to the unedifying ­spectacle of the said ministers ganging up to take a hard line on public protector Thuli Madonsela's much-bruited report on the massively costly upgrades to the president's private homestead in Nkandla.

The ministers' court application to delay the release of her report made them look very much like they were choosing to protect the president from embarrassment rather than to protect the Constitution from damage.

It is, after all, the Constitution that mandates the public protector's ­investigation into any activities that appear to involve malfeasance on the part of the state.

As Nelson Mandela once put it: "The administrative conduct of government and authorities are subject to the scrutiny of independent organs. This is an essential element of good governance that we have sought to have built into our new constitutional order … It was, to me, never reason for irritation but rather a source of comfort when these bodies were asked to adjudicate on the actions of my government and judged against."

The ministers claim they in no way seek to undermine the public protector's office, yet their "irritation" with Madonsela is palpable and they are clearly concerned to circumscribe her power.

That much is clear from the obsessive reference to the architecture of secrecy that they seem to think must perforce surround the president – and that they insist the public protector cannot navigate without their approval.

It is clear from the evidence emerging that they attempted to dissuade her from conducting a full investigation, urging her to leave the Nkandla probe to other institutions of state.

In the weasel words adopted by the cluster's oversight poodle – the joint standing committee on intelligence – this was to avoid "parallel investigations". But it is transparently obvious that the real concern is about Madonsela's discretion, not her duplication.

The tendency by governments to shift their more dubious activities away from public oversight by way of security classification is a global phenomenon. We would be foolish to think ours is immune to such temptations.

This is even more so with the adoption of the Protection of State Information Bill. If signed into law it will give the state security minister the power to regulate how constitutional oversight bodies – including the Public Protector – access and make use of classified information. The Nkandla episode shows how easily secrecy can become a weapon against accountability. And the cluster has shown how keen they are to use it.

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