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23 June 2017 21:01 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

The surrealism of Key Point secrecy

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The National Key Points Act, passed by the Apartheid Parliament in 1980 to protect the PW Botha regime and those who collaborated with it, is a constitutional abomination. Yet, when civil society groups requested the list of National Key Points from the Minister of Police in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), this request was refused on the grounds that making the list public would provide information to “dark forces” out to destabilise South Africa. The Gauteng High Court had no problem in rejecting this laughable claim and ordered the release of the list.

Secrecy becomes a habit for those with something to hide. No wonder the Apartheid state was notoriously secretive. Although the rumour that PW Botha’s matric certificate was classified information could never be confirmed (let’s just say that he was no academic overachiever), much else in Apartheid South Africa was classified information. When the Apartheid state finally came crashing down in the early 1990’s the paper shredders worked overtime to destroy the (secret) evidence on extra-judicial killings, torture and other state crimes.

The National Key Points Act played its part in creating this web of secrecy and deceit. Although the list of National Key Points was never made public, citizens could be prosecuted for revealing information about security measures at National Key Points, creating a Kafkaesque world in which you could be sent to prison for something that you could not have known was a crime.

Sadly (but perhaps not surprisingly) the Act was never repealed or amended after the advent of democracy. It has, instead, been enthusiastically (but only selectively – more on this later) used to suppress information about facilities about which the public may ask awkward questions. A certain private home in rural KwaZulu-Natal comes to mind.

The Act allows the Minister to declare any place a National Key Point, among other reasons “whenever he considers it necessary or expedient for the safety of the Republic or in the public interest”. As the High Court pointed out this gives the Minister (now the Minister of Police) almost unfettered discretion to declare places National Key Points if he or she wants to keep information about it secret.

The declaration of a place as a National Key Point has some interesting consequences. Section 3 of the Act states that once declared a Key Point:

“the owner of the National Key Point concerned shall after consultation with the Minister at his own expense take steps to the satisfaction of the Minister in respect of the security of the said Key Point.”

Famously this provision was ignored after President Jacob Zuma’s private home was declared a National Key Point. It was argued that a cabinet decision on security upgrades at Presidential homes governed the Nkandla renovations. However, it is unclear how a policy decision, taken by one branch of government, can trump legislation passed by another.

The Constitutional Court ruled in Executive Council of the Western Cape Legislature and Others v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others that the executive cannot amend the provisions of an Act of Parliament as this would breach the separation of powers. The cabinet policy therefore could not amend the provisions of the National Key Points Act.

A fascinating legal question is whether a cabinet policy can be invoked to justify state-funded “security upgrades” at a National Key Point, given that the Act requires the owner to carry the cost of any security upgrades. In her report the Public Protector assumed that it could. But I would be surprised if a court found that the peremptory provisions in an Act of Parliament could be overridden by a cabinet policy.

Section 3B of the Act also requires the establishment of a “Special Account” which can be used to render financial assistance – including loans – to the owners of National Key Points required to improve the security on the property. This Special Account has never been created. This means another pivotal section of the National Key Points Act has not been complied with.

Section 10 of the Act further creates several criminal offences regarding National Key Points. Amongst others, it prohibits any person from furnishing “any information relating to the security measures applicable at or in respect of any National Key Point”.

When the list of National Key Points is kept secret it means that ordinary citizens may not know when they commit a crime relating to a National Key Point. The High Court correctly found that keeping the list of National Key Points secret was in conflict with one of the basic tenets of the principle of legality.

This is so because there can be no secret laws. “One of the central tenets underlying the common-law understanding of legality is that of foreseeability - that the rules of criminal law are clear and precise so that an individual may easily behave in a manner that avoids committing crimes.” For this reason alone, according to the High Court, the list of National Key Points had to be made public.

The state also had an obligation in terms of PAIA to make the list public. Section 11(3) of PAIA makes it clear that a requester of information need not justify a request for information held by the state. In contrast, if the state refuse to provide the information requested it is the state who has to justify its refusal.

In this case, the state failed to provide any evidence of why it was justified to keep the list of National Key Points a secret.

The High Court quoted extensively from the Constitutional Court judgment in President of the Republic of South Africa and Others v M & G Media Ltd to explain what was required from the state to justify a refusal to provide information held by it.

“In order to discharge its burden under PAIA, the state must provide evidence that the record in question falls within the description of the statutory exemption it seeks to claim. The proper approach … is therefore to ask whether the state has put forward sufficient evidence for a court to conclude that, on the probabilities, the information withheld falls within the exemption claimed.”

“The recitation of the statutory language of the exemptions claimed is not sufficient for the state to show that the record in question falls within the exemptions claimed. Nor are mere ipse dixit affidavits proffered by the state. The affidavits for the state must provide sufficient information to bring the record within the exemption claimed.”

“Sufficient information” was never provided in this case to justify the secrecy. Instead the state alluded to “dark forces” that are out to destabilise peace-loving countries, like our own. By way of illustration, the state referred to the bombing of the mall in Nairobi as this supposedly shows “how vulnerable countries and their citizens are.” As the High Court remarked:

“This is, self-evidently, an ill chosen example; ie, to compare a shopping centre being exposed to politically inspired violence, where the public congregate en masse, with a key point, is inapposite. However, it may be supposed that, upon a generous interpretation of the remark, it was intended simply to illustrate the generic exposure to unexpected violence that everyone experiences. Nevertheless, to give voice to a bland truism contributes nothing to a justification under PAIA.”

In fact, the court found that the state wholly failed to provide any evidence for denying access to the list. The state claimed that making the list public would endanger the lives of people and was likely to endanger state security. But it did not provide any facts to back up this bold claim. On the contrary, the state itself had on previous occasions revealed that some places have been declared National Key Points, rendering its argument that such revelation threatens the security of individuals or the state difficult to accept.

As the High Court wryly remarked:

“The rationale offered by the respondents is spoilt by the conduct of the Government itself, because evidence was adduced of ministers having furnished details of key points to Parliament for the whole world to know, including, presumably, those dark forces that lurk in wait to disturb our tranquillity. A further example of public disclosure of a key point adduced by the applicants includes the very public announcement that Nkandla, the private home of President Zuma, has been declared a key point.”

The Court also rejected the state’s “James Bond defence”. Perhaps answering the question on whether the law has a sense of humour, posed by Justice Sachs in the Laugh it Off case, the High Court rejected this defence in the following fashion:

“In argument, counsel for the respondents, quite properly, was driven to concede that there was no evidential material disclosed in the papers to support the refusal. He contended that the predicament of the respondents was illustrated by the experiences of that well known gentleman adventurer and upholder of noble causes, James Bond, who, albeit it must be supposed, with his customary charm and grace, declined to disclose a fact to a questioner, because were he to do so, he would have to kill him. This is an interesting submission, which, alas, is spoilt by the absence of such an allegation under oath.”

Hopefully the state will not appeal the judgment. If it does appeal, it will almost certainly lose again, wasting taxpayer’s money in the process.

But this judgment is only a partial victory for common sense and openness. The case did not deal with the larger question of whether the Key Points Act was unconstitutional. Given the untrammelled discretion given to the Minister to declare places National Key Points, aspects of the Act will almost certainly be declared unconstitutional if they were to be challenged.

But that question will only be definitely answered when the constitutionality of the Act is challenged in court. Hopefully the court will get the opportunity to answer this question in the near future. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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