/ 11 September 2014

Securocrats choke flow of information

MGCIJ shares South Africans' widespread dismay at the National Assembly's adoption on April 25 of the Protection of State Information Bill
MGCIJ shares South Africans' widespread dismay at the National Assembly's adoption on April 25 of the Protection of State Information Bill

When Kebby Maphatsoe, the deputy defence minister, made his (now retracted) accusation that the public protector is an agent of the CIA, it was only the latest in a number of recent events that saw members of the security cluster shouldering their way into democratic spaces.

A few weeks ago, security cluster ministers were descending on Parliament to announce new security measures to keep MPs in line. Before that, it was the security cluster rushing to court to block the public protector’s report on state expenditure on the president’s private complex at Nkandla.

Citizens could be forgiven for asking: At what point did the security cluster ministers appoint themselves as the president’s political bodyguards?

It may be that these events are only the most visible symptoms of a deeper illness: the securitisation of some parts of the state.

The massive increase in the number of national key points in recent years tells a similar story. In 2006-2007, there were 118 secret “national security” sites in terms of the National Key Points Act. That figure has shot up to 197 – a 67% increase. Among them, we know, are government buildings, petrochemical refineries (and apparently many other private-sector sites) and at least one private homestead in Nkandla.

The growing number of national key points may be a litmus test of securocratic urges in some parts of the state. But the apparent spread of the powers of the Act undermines democratic values itself, as we saw last year with several attempts to block information on the massive public spending at Nkandla, or when National Union of Mineworkers members were blocked from protesting outside the headquarters of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa, a national key point, in 2013.

This year, the SABC chairperson reportedly warned SABC staff not to leak details of internal strife at the broadcaster because all SABC offices are national key points.

We see a similar sharp increase in strategic installations, a lesser-known category of secret “national security”. These appear to have a similar function to national key points, but are not apparently regulated by law. These have multiplied by more than 80%, from 136 to 248.

On Thursday September 4, Transparency International released a study of national security secrecy in 15 countries, including South Africa. It also covers major powers such as the United Kingdom and Germany, and this shows that South Africa is not alone in its occasional appetite to abuse its secrecy laws.

Regarding access to information, civil society organisations are reporting ever-greater frustrations with the existing transparency mechanism. The annual surveys of the Promotion of Access to Information Act by the Civil Society Network, which tracks civil society requests for information from public and private bodies, found last year that only 16% of that year’s requests had resulted in a full release of information.

This was the lowest success rate since monitoring started in 2009 and resonates with ongoing concerns that there is growing resistance to making information available.

But what does securitisation look like on the ground? One possible litmus test is to look at how police have dealt with dissent. There has been an extraordinary spike in police violence against protesters and growing signs of the criminalisation of protest.

The University of Johannesburg Social Change Research Unit has determined that, although the rates of civil unrest in protests have been greatly exaggerated, the phenomenon of protester deaths at the hands of police has emerged and steadily climbed in the past 10 years.

The use of lethal force against protesters left at least 10 dead in 2011, including the unarmed Andries Tatane. At least five community protesters were killed by police in 2012, besides the shocking events at Marikana. In 2013, it was 11.

Similarly, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate has reported a significant increase in complaints by protesting citizens of assault at the hands of police: from one or two each year up to 2004, there were 24 by 2011, with a peak of 44 in 2009. And, despite the police ministry’s announcement of the “demilitarisation” of protest policing, the new approach will apparently focus on intelligence-led methods, suggesting the surveillance-heavy approach we have seen in the UK and the United States.

These two sets of trends – excessive secrecy and political machinations in the security structures at the top and a crackdown on dissent at the bottom – are starting more and more to look like two pieces of the same puzzle. A few years ago, such a claim might have been dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic fringe. But it is starting to seem less crazy.

And it is far from being a local problem only. In her forthcoming book, The Rise of the Securocrats, Professor Jane Duncan suggests that South Africa’s apparent securitisation needs to be understood as part of a global trend towards Big Brotherhood, which has been precipitated in part by world events such as the September 11 attacks and the global financial crisis.

Certainly, many of the practices and methods of our security cluster appear to have been directly imported from Western states that have undergone some of the same processes.

The right to know – to access and share information, to organise, protest and speak out – is the foundation of a just society. Information rights were a driving principle in the struggle against apartheid and at the centre of the democratic gains achieved in the 1990s.

This expansive “national security” mentality encroaches on democratic principles by stifling debate, undermining accountability and protecting the powerful from scrutiny. The Protection of State Information Bill – the secrecy Bill – should President Jacob Zuma finally sign it, would only be the latest addition to existing policies and practices that undermine democracy.

It is a given that secrecy is sometimes necessary to protect human life or a person’s legitimate claim to privacy. But the tools of a security state are easily misused and, when this happens, they serve to protect the powerful. These practices are put in place in the interests of “stability” and “security”, but often become drivers of instability and insecurity.

We need continued, unified action to resist a growing culture of secrecy and authoritarianism. The recent regeneration of information activism in South Africa must continue: South Africans must continue to challenge the increasing power and influence of the country’s securocrats in our politics and in our daily lives.

Murray Hunter is one of the authors of the Right2Know campaign’s 2014 Secret State of the Nation Report, launched on Tuesday and available at r2k.org.za