The secrets we do not need

Posted on June 7, 2011


Secret….do you want to know a secret/ Let me whisper in your ear……

These are the words of a song some of you may know or remember. It’s a simple enough thing, but it contains a great truth about secrets: they all too often get whispered from ear to ear. In the process they sometimes become distorted. But those in possession of such secrets can also use them to gain favours or protection — to blackmail and manipulate.

But let me first define what I see as the two kinds of secret: one that should be eradicated as vigorously as possible and the other which perhaps cannot — and certainly should not — be tampered with.

I’ll deal with the second first: these are our private secrets. We all have them, mundane as many may seem. Your personal identity number — your PIN — for your credit, debit or whatever card; the password to your private thoughts inscribed on a computer or your sexual preferences are matters that should, in most cases, concern only you and whichever consenting adults you indulge them with.

The only time that the personal behaviour and activities of any individual becomes a matter for disclosure is when this has a bearing on wider society; when it is demonstrably in the public interest. So, for example, I oppose — and have opposed — the “outing” of gays and lesbians, a campaign conducted in the relatively liberal society of Britain. Because these are personal and private issues and it is up to the individuals concerned whether they remain confidential or not.

However, there are cases where such “outing” is clearly justified. I think here of the case of the perhaps unfortunately named Rev Cannan Banana in Zimbabwe. Even if he had not been a predatory rapist and sexual abuser (he was a senior figure in Robert Mugabe’s regime and he forced himself on his bodyguard), he should have been “outed” because he was part of — and supported — a regime that had launched vicious homophobic attacks.

To disclose such hypocrisy was clearly in the public interest.

And that brings us — quite neatly, I think — to the whole matter of people in public or “high” office, who are the major promoters, not just here but in almost every society, of the idea that certain matters should remain “confidential” “secret” or even “top secret”.

In the first place, we should never forget that politicians and the people they employ are our elected REPRESENTATIVES and PUBLIC SERVANTS — in other words individuals who are supposed to work FOR us and in our interests. They have no business in doing business behind our backs.

And nor do those who own and control the wealth and wherewithall in the private sector have any business in keeping secret from us their price fixing shananigans and other “commercial secrets” that often have wide-ranging and deleterious effects on the wider society.

Of course, there are times when immediate disclosure would not be appropriate. Take the example of the recent state of the nation address or the Budget. In order to be able to assess, analyse and report as accurately as possible about such matters, parliamentary journalists are given the relevant speeches and details in advance. They are then cloistered in a room to work on their reports that may only be released once the president or minister has delivered the address.

There are other examples too, of embargoes — and of them being broken (the matric results being a recent case). Depending on the seriousness of such breaches, I think there should be severe sanctions for those who break embargoes, provided the embargo is warranted. And embargoes should be lifted as soon as possible after a speech is completed, or a commercial or political deal is done. None of your 30-year or 50-year rules that exist, for the most part, to protect the usually dubious reputations of politicians and their frequently nefarious dealings.

We have a Promotion of Access to Information Act — PAIA — in this country There are many people here who will know how difficult it is to use this process that was supposed to exist for the benefit of the ordinary citizen; to exist to delve behind the veils of secrecy.

Those veils exist with a vengeance. And they are supported by politicians and bureaucrats at various levels. To my mind there was a classic case a few years back in which I was directly involved: it concerned 34 boxes of documents from the TRC. These had been left in the Cape Town offices when the commission wrapped up its work.

What then happened has all the hallmarks of farce. The person put in temporary charge asked a former staff member who has a history being, well, somewhat emotional, to check through the boxes and decide what to do with them. Now there is an awful lot of paper in 34 boxes that were, as the TRC had ordered, in the public domain. In the time, it was quite impossible to check through that amount of paper which, in any event, need not have been “checked”. So the appointed checker said: “Classify them” and they duly trundled off in the care of members of the justice department. Then they disappeared, in that nobody seemed to know where they were. Yet in those boxes was part of our history, they might even contain something very important.

I kept asking questions and writing about these “missing boxes”. Justice admitted taking them but said that the National Intelligence Agency (they had no right) now had charge. The NIA denied this. Finally came a statement from the then minister and the archives committee: an investigation had been launched into what had happened to these boxes. I dutifully reported this.

But I had been conned. The minister, the national archivist and a clutch of senior civil servants had met and decided to fob me off. They knew where the boxes were (in the justice department, but in the care of the NIA) and to get me off their backs they invented an “investigation”.

I found this out because, bureaucracies being what they are, minutes were taken of that archive committee meeting and, because it is a matter of course that such minutes are passed on to archives, a copy went to those good archivists at SAHA. Because the meeting dealt with the 34 boxes, SAHA passed on those minutes.

Now this may seem minor: but just look at what happened. A minister — our representative — the national archivist and civil servants from the justice ministry — our servants — had apparently no compunction to lie to you via me as a journalist. That’s what official secrecy leads to: lies and duplicity. But it also creates an elite, bound together by their lies or complicity. It makes manipulation and — not to put too fine a point on it — blackmail par for the course.

We suffer now as a result of secret deals and deals about secrecy that were done in order to secure our transition from apartheid. We live with the consequences, one of which, I feel, is much of the corruption that exists.

A society that supports transparency and open dealing is a healthier society than one that chooses the path of secrecy, however that is dressed up, be it in the garb of national interest or state security or whatever.

Yes, because there are no absolutes, there may be times when a particular, perhaps premature, disclosure does harm. But I put it to you, that much greater harm — a virtual cancer in the body politic — exists when concessions are made to secrecy. There are some well-meaning people who say: Yes, we oppose secrecy BUT….some things perhaps justify secrecy. You, know, as far as I am concerned its like someone saying: I want to be just a little bit pregnant. It’s illogical. So I say: forward to an open, transparent society. Forward, in fact, to real democracy.

Posted in: Commentary