Defend Truth


Opposing government secrecy should not be kneejerk opposition for the sake of opposition


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Public disclosure of government information is not the only ingredient necessary to sustain a democracy. Disclosure, full or restricted, has always been conditioned by security, privacy, and considerations like timing.

There is something about secrecy in government that sits uncomfortably among most civilians. I share that discomfort, with some caveats.

What is fascinating, if disturbing, is the way that many people of a certain generation who today demand absolute transparency and openness in governance were silent during the most violent days of South Africa’s past.

Silence, it should be said, is complicity.

Public outcries are not always for the better of society, and in democratic South Africa it may, also, be for sabotage, disruption or furthering the belief that “Africans cannot govern themselves”. This is probably a good point at which to have a brief discussion before we come back to the main topic.

We know, for instance, that former colonial and settler colonial powers have kept many African countries on a tight leash. In other places they sabotaged post-independence governments, leaving legacies of spite. The latter has been rebutted, mainly by the former colonists and fellow travellers.

Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Times reported as far back as 1989 that “in Mozambique… the grey concrete truss of an unfinished high-rise hotel stands as an everyday reminder of colonialism… The departing Portuguese poured concrete down the elevator shafts, and that made it too expensive to go ahead with the beachfront project — and too expensive to tear it down.”

We may accept that anything or anyone critical of settler communities is just wrong and that there is no certainty about “sabotage”, but it’s worth remembering the words of a former Portuguese settler in Mozambique who (kind of) justified sabotaging infrastructure in the following way:

“The people who flooded into the city after the evacuation would have messed things up anyway. They were rural folk who didn’t know what toilets were for. To begin with, they drank from the bidets…”

There have also been other ways of sabotaging post-independence societies. With parts of Haiti currently going through incredible disruption and violence, it is worth reflecting, also, how for several generations after independence, well into the 20th century, Haitians were forced to pay the descendants of their former slave masters, including the Empress of Brazil; the son-in-law of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I; Germany’s last imperial chancellor; and Gaston de Galliffet, the French general known as the “butcher of the Commune” for crushing an insurrection in Paris in 1871.

Read more in Daily Maverick: US Military Evacuates Non-Essential Staff From Embassy in Haiti

The wealth that European colonists pulled from the ground “brought wild profits for a French bank that helped finance the Eiffel Tower, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, and its investors [and] controlled Haiti’s treasury from Paris for decades, and the bank eventually became part of one of Europe’s largest financial conglomerates”, The New York Times reminded its readers a year ago.

We should probably play safe and say that the minority that accumulated power and privilege for more than 300 years gave it all up, left no “legacies of spite” and have been fully behind independent democratic South Africa — equal behind a veil of democracy (with apologies to John Rawls).

They only mean well. They believe that the government should not withhold any information from them (the way their own representatives held all the cards for more than three centuries). But things are rarely that straightforward.

Between secrecy and the (human) security of society

There are times when I believe that all information must be free. I have, however, also seen how drips of information have been ripped from context and reported as fact and presented as posing imminent danger.

As a journalist who practiced the craft during the most difficult times, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s (okay I am now a columnist and essayist), I dug hard and deep to uncover processes and projects shrouded in secrecy, very often to the dismay of the people who were in and around government and public administration. Twice this constant digging (I withheld secrets from the state in the 1980s) landed me in the old John Vorster Square…

Accountability is an effective key to open the doors of secrecy, with the condition that there are times when secrecy may be necessary for the functioning of government. Without it, citizens are deprived of a meaningful role in the political process, and the exercise of authority is insulated from public oversight and control. More on this below.

Read more in Daly Maverick: Accountability/Justice/Responsibility — words of forgotten meaning in South Africa

As a guiding principle for journalism (I am not a professor, nor a scholar and definitely not a specialist on journalism, so what I say is open to criticism) we have to be aware, whether or not we agree, that public disclosure of government information is not the only ingredient necessary to sustain a democracy.

Disclosure, full or restricted, has always been conditioned by security, privacy, and considerations like timing. This means that at any time a process, sometimes in the germinal stage, would be kept in confidence until the process has been completed and it is released to the public, but secrecy is not always absolutely necessary.

The test of whether it is (a necessary condition) is to consider it in a multiplicity of contexts; the specific issue, the actors, the institution, the type of information that is shared/withheld, and the likely harm to civilians, the country and the government that may be caused by releasing or withholding vital information.

Transparency should be the baseline presumption of modern democratic governance. Secrecy should be avoided and the government should make the case, publicly, for secrecy through accountability mechanisms.

Accountability and human security

The lack of accountability undermines state responsibility to secure human security and prevents the news media from getting to the truth and defending it. Government spokespeople tell half-truths and deflect questions, obfuscate or simply avoid telling the truth.

I am sure there are very many people in South Africa who watch US network television, and who admire MSNBC’s Jen Psaki. Does anyone remember how she — while she was spokesperson for the US government – denied that the US intervened in sovereign countries, propped up “friendly regimes” around the world (from South East Asia to Latin America) or actively sabotaged or undermined democracies, from Salvador Allende’s in Chile to Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh)?

The answer is either “no” or, it is permissible because, well, Washington always gets away with it, and South Africans must beware of “losing the West” — even if it means concealing the truth.

Indeed, most of our people who swear blind faith in the West would probably agree with George W Bush who decreed:

“Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their government. Also, our nation’s progress depends on the free flow of information. Nevertheless, throughout our history, the national defence has required that certain information be maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security, and our interactions with foreign nations. Protecting information critical to our nation’s security remains a priority.”

Most people would hang on to Bush’s decree, and fail to look into the way that the state in that country has limited the flow of information.

With the statement, Bush foregrounded “the free flow of information” then qualified it (with “nevertheless”) to justify a massive and immovable bureaucracy to keep government’s closely guarded secrets. By the time Bush left office, “classification” had increased to a total of more than 23 million classification actions per year. It was recorded that by 2008, the cost of protecting classified information in government and industry amounted to around $9.9-billion.

“Untold billions of pages of government records, some dating back to World War 1, have remained inaccessible to the public on asserted national security grounds, and fateful government deliberations on questions of war and peace, human rights, and domestic surveillance have increasingly moved beyond public ken,” Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in Yale University’s Law & Policy Review in 2009.

Aftergood would go on to say:

“More prosaically, even agency telephone directories have been removed from public access, along with numerous other categories of useful and formerly public information. Not only civil libertarians and public interest activists, but also defence and intelligence officials, now say that secrecy has gone too far and must be restrained. In particular, the classification system that restricts access to government information on national security grounds clearly is not serving its intended purpose. It has become an unwarranted obstacle to information-sharing inside and outside the government, to the detriment of public policy.”

This privilege is not given to South Africa which has, since the presidency of Nelson Mandela, had to find a balance between justice and freedom. It is, however, a delicate balance.

Where the balance lies, for now (and who knows for how long, still) should not be left to government alone. If we turn the discussion to human security (“security” is not always a military endeavour) and we focus on food security, health, environment, personal, community, political and economic security, justice becomes important, unless you rely on “the market” to allocate resources.

In that case, you will have to accept inequality in the issue of justice. There are always winners and losers in “the market”. It comes down to transparency and accountability.

To hold government and corporations accountable — acknowledging that government can be held accountable through public institutions while corporations would prefer to self-regulate and are not in the business of “justice” or “human security” but in profit maximisation — transparency is fundamental.

Transparency will ensure that as much information as possible is available to measure the performance of the state/government and guard against maladministration, corruption and graft, but significantly also that human security is shored up. An elected government is duty-bound to ensure that justice is equally distributed across society, and not on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or cronyism.

That should suffice. I should leave the matter with an exercise I gave former students in a class on “War, Strategy and Intelligence”.

A Cabinet subcommittee considers a response to a threat against the state. An official explains (working with an established theoretical typology of state responses): “If we start with war, then move back towards sanctions, public shaming (at the UN), and then diplomatic efforts, we will come to a decision that avoids violence and destruction. Diplomacy works better than conflict and destruction.”

A journalist picks up the reference to war, and rushes to the editor and says “the war option is on the table”… The point is that the official simply laid out state responses across time and place to demonstrate to decision-makers what ways there are to decisions about threats against the state. The “war option” was never “on the table”.

So, what part of the discussion should be held in secret? When it comes to human security discussions (and deadlines and headlines that do not wait for government press releases), what access should journalists have to government decision-making?

This is not a settled matter. Some of us have fought long and hard to break up the security establishment and secrecy of the old regime in the best way we could. As journalists, it would be wrong to accept total secrecy, and silly to expect complete access (we might as well have seats for the press in Cabinet rooms, and allow individual journalists to dash in and out because headlines are more important than substance).

If you think that is a joke, consider this. When I was political correspondent on Sowetan, the late Deon du Plessis told me to (always) consider the poster (which sells the newspaper), then the headline (which attracts the reader’s attention, and then write the story.

I look forward to a meaningful discussion, if only because I don’t have all the answers. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Despite your concluding caveat about not having “all the answers” you can be sure that from the many insiders (none of whom voted for apartheid incidentally – because ‘we’ did not have a vote then) you can expect several responses with “all the answers” . Of that I am quite certain ! Thank you for clarifying your status as not being a ‘professor’ as some attributed to you recently .

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Before we move on to this secrecy issue, please may you consider not trotting out the 300 years of colonialism trope? A cursory examination of this country’s anthropological history over the period will reveal to you precisely when and at what times which parts of this country were “colonised”. And in that, always also remind us not only of the Euro colonisation, but also that of the southward migrating Nguni tribes who relentlessly hunted and exterminated the first nation peoples of southern Africa, as they themselves colonised huge swathes of this territory.

    The points made about the need for secrecy in sensitive situations are well made and received. Where politicians all stumble, as did the apartheid government and all the other examples you mention,, is in determining what is and isn’t de facto state security.

    In that, we should understand that this government has wrapped itself in indecently outrageous acts of dishonesty, thereby rendering every action of theirs closeted in “secrecy” as highly suspicious. What can we plausibly say about SAA and Gordhan’s disingenuous comment that confidentiality is not secrecy? Bear in mind the Oxford definition of confidentiality is “a situation in which you expect somebody to keep information secret”. What is so secretly sensitive about selling SAA for R1-00 that we have to say the terms are not in the public interest? My feeling is that there is definitely something smelly in it, else disclosure would be a simple matter.

  • District Six says:

    Thanks, Ismail. It really sticks in my craw that those who benefitted – and were oddly silent prior to 30 years ago, now shriek the loudest in the comments of DM.
    We missed the indignation of white people back then, folks.
    White people were tax-payers back then too. Right?
    But they were silent when their government wasted their tax money on military excursions into Angola, and they were silent whilst 32 Battalion “hunted Bushmen” on Saturdays, with their tax money. Or whilst Coetzee was blowing up the bodies of murdered school teachers, all with their tax money.

    If I had 10c for every white person who suddenly discovered “critical thinking” after 1994! Now they point fingers as if they have the moral high ground?
    White people should really just sit on their hands right now.

    No person who voted before 1994 should be shrieking about the thieving government, or the murderous politicians, or the lack of electricity. If only because white people were the only people who had electricity back then.
    We remember. Before you accuse us of being “ANC voting sheep”, we remember when you were the sheep voting year after year for a crime against humanity.

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