Former ANC MP Cecil Burgess said he hoped to run an impartial and independent office should he be elected as the new inspector general of intelligence.
The second to last of 11 candidates to be interviewed for the position, the former joint standing committee on intelligence chairperson sat comfortably on the other side of the table on Wednesday while his former peers grilled him on his management style, his understanding of the role of inspector general and the principles of impartiality and independence.
Burgess is seen as the frontrunner for the position and rumours about a possible move to the State Security Agency (SSA) began circulating as he was excluded from the list of MPs after the elections last year.
He was appointed to the ad hoc committee that looked into the spending of taxpayers’ money on upgrading President Jacob Zuma’s home in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal and which cleared the president of any wrongdoing. He also led the ad hoc parliamentary committee that adopted the controversial Protection of State Information Bill.
If appointed inspector general he will be expected to protect South African citizens from any abuse of SSA powers.
Burgess said chairing the joint standing committee on intelligence and the committee that dealt with the protection of information Bill had not been easy tasks because there were concerns about impartiality.
“So under those circumstances it might appear that the person is not impartial and not independent, but you must understand that the role of a chairperson is different from the position. In terms of being the inspector general, there is a constitutional obligation on the office to behave in a certain way,” he said.
“People have got to respect you. There are certain things you cannot do in this job, for example, making speeches that are political. Those speeches will give the impression that you are not impartial.
“This is a different job to being a politician. I have been a lawyer for many years and I have always been guided not by my politics but by the law society, and this is an ethical code that all legal practitioners have to abide by. It’s a code of being honest, and behaving in a manner that doesn’t bring disrepute.”
On the issue of national security and how it related to transparency and openness, he said the tension that existed between the two sides of the argument was a healthy one.
Burgess said on the one hand there were organisations that were persistent in their call for openness and on the other, communities that were concerned about the disclosure of sensitive information.
“Very often it is the case that things that should be made open are not made open and it creates the wrong impression – that everything is being restricted. But there is nothing wrong with the tension that exists between the disclosures and the non-disclosures. It is a healthy tension. It is up to the legislation to determine how much should be made available.”
Other candidates interviewed included Clinton Davids, Smanga Jele, Annelize Gerber, Desiree Fouche and Mahlubandile Radebe.
Lobby group Right2Know, which had campaigned for the interview process to be conducted in an open and transparent way, staged a walkout during Burgess’s interview after their concerns about his fitness to hold the post were not tabled in the committee.
Murray Hunter, on behalf of the Right2Know campaign, wrote a letter to chairperson Connie September, drawing the committee’s attention to the fact that as former chair, Burgess had failed to table annual reports to Parliament during his tenure, and some were tabled three and two years too late.
“These lapses do not inspire confidence in Mr Burgess’s capacity to execute vital duties of the inspector general efficiently or effectively, nor reflect well on the candidate’s appreciation for the importance of prompt disclosure of information for effective oversight of the intelligence services,” the letter read.
While the letter was circulated to the members of the committee by the lobby group, September banned them from addressing any of the concerns raised there during the interviews.
The committee will now deliberate in private, before recommending a candidate to the National Assembly. President Jacob Zuma will make the final decision.