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Defence force’s veil of secrecy: a threat to SA democracy

Defence force’s veil of secrecy: a threat to SA democracy

The primary mandate of the ministry of defence is to protect and defend the republic and its people. But when the military becomes a law unto itself, acts with impunity and repeatedly refuses to be accountable or transparent, South Africans need to question whose interests are being served. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu is a formidable opponent. Nyami Booi, former parliamentary portfolio committee chairman on defence, found that out last year when he went head to head with Sisulu about the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission reports, which the defence minister had refused to give to Parliament.

These reports had their genesis in the running battles between the police and striking soldiers that took place in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria late in August 2009. The violent skirmish was caused by a dispute over wages and conditions in the military, and the event was well covered by the media. The matter proved highly embarrassing for both the government and Sisulu, who were trying to diminish, if not eradicate the union’s role in the military.

As a result, Sisulu set up a National Defence Force Service Commission in September 2009 to investigate conditions in the military. A diverse 10-member commission included Boeremag trial Judge Lebotsang Bosielo, UDM founder and former commander of the Transkei defence force Bantu Holomisa and MP Pieter Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus.

The commission had no sooner begun when its Bosielo broke news of “sub-human” conditions in the military which he said required urgent attention. The situation, he said, amounted to a “ticking time bomb”. Speaking in Parliament, Bosielo said military personnel had to work in buildings that were decayed or collapsing and had utilities that didn’t function. He said the members of the defence force were demoralised. “They are disgruntled, they don’t know where they stand. Something must be done about it.

“We wondered how soldiers survive with the salaries they are getting,” said Bosielo. “This is what prompted us to draft and prepare an interim report to the minister; to draw her attention and say we are sitting on a time bomb. If you don’t attend to it today, or yesterday, you’re going to regret it.”

Sisulu was again embarrassed, but her response on the matter was intransigence. She said Bosielo’s statements had no standing because they were not made in her presence. Sisulu added that Bosielo breached protocol by briefing Parliament’s defence oversight committee before the Commission had briefed her.

Shadow defence minister David Maynier called for interim reports on the service commission to be made public before the pending Defence Amendment Bill could be passed. This resulted in a Mexican stand-off between the chairman of the oversight committee and the minister of defence, and the stalling of the bill.

The matter went to the speaker of the house of assembly, Max Sisulu. A statement from the speaker’s office showed greater concern with the public nature of the scuffle, rather than what was at the heart of the disagreement.

The matter escalated and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe was brought in to resolve it as Sisulu insisted that the oversight committee had no right to the interim report and was only entitled to a final report endorsed by cabinet. Ultimately Sisulu won by citing “executive privilege” for not handing the interim reports over to Parliament. Legal academics rubbished this claim. The end game was that the report was only made public in final form.

After an ANC lekgotla the ruling party’s chief whip Mathole Motshekga warned oversight committee chairpersons not to be so tough on cabinet members, and Booi got the boot. Booi’s dismissal was interesting, given he’d been exposed during the Travelgate scandal in 2009. Then the ANC backed him to the hilt, but the minute he squared up to Sisulu, it was tickets for Booi.

“It seems to me that under Sisulu and Zuma, there seems to be a new kind of authoritarianism,” the Maynier said in an interview with Daily Maverick. “If you look across the security sector, for example in the police force, you see the rank system is being militarised and the police are using more force than before,” says Maynier. “There is an increase in the centralisation of intelligence services and increased levels of secrecy in the defence force.”

Maynier said the interim reports were withheld because they contained information that showed the ministry wasn’t doing its job. “Those interim reports contained damning information about the state of the defence force and my view is that the minister was reluctant to release the report because the commission had made findings about the state of the defence force that were as embarrassing as they were revealing,” Maynier said. These declarations included details on the complete collapse of the grievance system in the defence force, a breakdown in the chain of command as well as infrastructure that was in a dilapidated and shocking state. He added, “The reports showed that the defence force was in deep trouble.”

Maynier said in his role as shadow defence minister he has had to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) many times to gain access to information. “Memorable applications here were in respect of the Airbus A400 M deal, the arms deal, the whole question of information related to presidential and VIP flights and information related to the 2010 AgustaWestland deal with Denel.”

The shadow minister of defence said communication on contentious matters with the department of defence ranged from a mute response to attempts by the ministry to make a deal in exchange for information. “I was told that I was able to gain access to information related to the Airbus A400M deal if I signed a confidentiality agreement.”

The airbus deal was scuppered after the CEO of Armscor, Sipho Thomo, revealed that the cost of the acquisition of eight Airbus A400M heavy lift aircraft increased from R17 billion in 2005 to R47 billion in 2009. The Airbus deal was cancelled, Thomo was axed and two years later Sisulu was still haggling over the R2.9 billion deposit paid on the deal.

Maynier said non-disclosure and keeping secrets was a norm for the defence force under Sisulu. “Minister of defence Lindiwe Sisulu generally or often refuses to answer parliamentary questions and routinely refuses to answer to questions, particularly tough parliamentary questions. Subsequently there is no real oversight of arms control or the defence force. Previously the chiefs of the defence force and service chiefs (of the air force, navy and military health service) appeared before Parliament to account for army business. In the third democratic Parliament under Mbeki they used to appear. They no longer appear,” he said.

“Parliament has never received a combat-readiness briefing on the state of the defence force, neither has it received a detailed briefing on capital acquisitions of the defence force. We don’t know what the defence force is acquiring, the value of acquisitions or the state of acquisitions,” said Maynier. “It is precisely because of this complete lack of transparency that I have never supported the defence budget. Clearly without transparency there cannot be any kind of accountability. My view on this is that Zuma’s power base is in the security sector and it seems that it is in his interests to maintain this power and influence.”

Defence consultant and analyst Helmoed Römer Heitman says, in a time of peace there’s not a lot the defence force should be keeping secret. “We would want to keep South Africa’s military readiness and contingency plans secret, together with information on our special forces particularly in an age of international terrorism. You also wouldn’t want to tell people where you deploy a submarine, and you wouldn’t want details of communications systems or guidance systems for precision weapons made public. Obviously, there should also be secrecy around electronic warfare and special technologies, but this is as far as it should go,” he says.

“The problem is that in the past we have tried to keep too much secret and, as a consequence, kept nothing secret.” Heitman says pre-apartheid decisions on military secrets were taken by people who “had no clue” of what was important and should have been strategically withheld. “Counter intelligence had some people who not even the catering corps wanted. They didn’t know what should be secret and, therefore, everything was kept secret.”

“The current defence force inherited this centralised system and hasn’t thought things through. Under the old regime everything was centralised under the minister and the new regime hasn’t come around to decentralising communication functions. As a result, if something happens in the military, the communications people ask the minister, ponder on the political implications and by the time they get into the press, it is too late. This is a pity because my experience is that the minister is very open and forthcoming, but it is the people lower down who don’t have the expertise effectively to deal with the media,” says Heitman.

Murray Hunter, national convenor of the Right2Know campaign, says one doesn’t have to look too far back into SA’s history to see that the ministry of defence and other security forces can be incredibly powerful when they operate with impunity.

“Today the police are being used in political warfare. We’ve seen the intimidation of the Public Protector and witnessed investigative journalists put under surveillance. This shows that the governed are losing control of government. There are large factions of government that are entirely slipping out of control from the electorate who should have control and who put this government in power.”

Hunter says matters that should be kept secret are those which protect life together with strictly defined ideas. “When dangerous criminals are being transported across the city, the route they take should not be public information. If there is a PIN to enter a prison, that should be a secret. But every democracy needs as few secrets as possible, and we are seeing more and more secrets that erode the public’s ability to hold people accountable.” Hunter says the state apparatus is now being used to protect members of government and political factions within the ruling party rather than the citizens.

The Mandela-era arms deal scandal, which continues to haunt the ANC and members of the ruling party, shows the security cluster has been anything but accountable or transparent. The investigation into the Bheki Cele leasing scandal, the subsequent intimidation of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and corruption allegations against Hawks and Asset Forfeiture Unit head Willie Hofmeyr merely serve to underscore the push towards opaque government.

No one denies a state should have secrets to protect lives or safeguard certain weapons, logistics or deployments. But in South Africa it is apparent that secrets are being used to protect politicians, to cover up corruption, administration inefficiencies and to buoy factional power as the security cluster increasingly becomes a law unto itself. Not exactly what the secrecy laws are designed to protect. DM

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Photo: SA Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. (REUTERS)


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