The South African government has come under fire from the media and the public on numerous occasions over its perceived lack of transparency. One such example has been the controversial Protection of State Information Bill commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill. There are fears that if passed this Bill could potentially be used by some in positions of power to cover up corruption and malpractice within the public sector.
The Bill has been widely criticised by the media arguing that it will make their job very difficult especially because of the extreme penalty of up to 25 years in prison for whistleblowers and journalists for leaking or possessing documents deemed confidential.
It is now 20 years since the dawn of democracy and there are instances where the Department of Public Works refuses requests for information under laws such as the National Key Points Act (NKPA) and the Protection of Information Act (PIA).
The Department of Public Works blocked the media’s attempts to get access to information about the controversial Nkandlagate debacle using NKPA and PIA. “Our government lacks accountability all too often due to incompetence and corruption. A perfect example of governments’ lack of transparency is seen through things such as Nkandla. We are hearing of documents being destroyed in the media. Government goes all out to cover up corruption,” Institute for Accountability Director Paul Hoffman told Live Magazine.
City Press recently revealed that government officials were ordered by ministers, directors-general and a state security officer to destroy all traces of documents related to the controversial R246 million upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.
These allegations come after 13 government officials were charged for financial misconduct, failing to follow tender processes and allowing irregular spending on the president’s homestead.
Live Magazine also spoke to Siviwe Mdoda and Joanne Adams who are organisers of the Right to Know campaign and they shared Hoffman’s sentiments. Mdoda pointed out a number of examples where government has proven to lack transparency: “Examples of this at national level are well-publicised: the Arms Deal Commission, Marikana Commission and the Nkandla saga are a case in point.”
Mdoda further spoke on the less reported acts of secrecy and blatant disregard for accountability which can be found at local government level. “It has become a common feature in local government that citizens are kept in the dark about how public money is used by municipalities,” Mdoda explained. This is seen in instances where out of 226 local municipalities in the country, only 22 received clean audits.
It is now well established that there remains a lot to be done on the part of the government to foster a culture of transparency. How can the public hold the executive to account? “Civil society needs to stand up and refuse to accept how they are being treated. It is clear that our government doesn’t feel the need to be accountable. It does not care about consulting with the public on issues,” Adams said.
Mdoda also raised another issue of great concern that indicates there is little transparency within our governance structures – the victimisation and intimidation of whistleblowers. “We are of the view that stronger protection of whistleblowers is an important step towards strengthening transparency,” Mdoda said.
The lack of transparency and accountability within government is quite problematic for our democracy. All that will be achieved from having a government with no transparency is the loss of public trust. “Without the public’s trust the political contract the government has with its citizenry will be highly questionable and will most likely not be renewed, as we have seen with growing numbers of citizens abstaining from voting,” Mdoda concluded.
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