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Isn’t It Time We Stopped Giving Mahlobo A 'Birthday Cheque' Budget?

Budgets spent in secret are a petri dish for abuse of power. If steps have been taken to remedy this, they haven’t been publicly declared.

17/05/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 17/05/2017 03:59 SAST
Gallo Images
South African Minister of State Security David Mahlobo at the SADC Double Troika summit on Lesotho on July 3, 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa. The summit is expected to find a solution to Lesotho�s political crisis. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Simphiwe Nkwali)

Today the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, delivered his budget speech to Parliament. For most ministers, it's an opportunity to lay out the priorities of their branch of government, and how they'll spend their funds to meet those priorities – complying with the constitutional values of openness and public participation. For Mahlobo though, it's become an opportunity to go hard in on the regular talking point of South Africa under siege, from unnamed foreign forces using the media, civic organisations and democratic institutions to "drive a wedge amongst the public" and effect "unconstitutional regime change".

What might get missed in this moment is that we got a run-down of a bunch of scary threats, but no actual budget. This is because State Security's "budget" is a single line item, about R4.7 billion transferred directly from Treasury for "Secret Services". It's like Parliament sending the SSA a birthday card with a cheque in it – because MPs don't actually get to know what the money will be spent on. This lack of financial oversight may seem like an academic detail, but it's actually at the heart of the bigger problem: that South Africa's intelligence structures are lacking in basic accountability.

In 2008, the Matthews Commission – an inquiry set up by then-Minister Ronnie Kasrils to probe the conduct of state spooks – made some basic but urgent recommendations for budget transparency of the SSA, as a non-negotiable step in the necessary task of getting the spooks under democratic control:

  • State Security should have its own separate budget (not a single line item in Treasury's budget).
  • State Security should present full annual reports and financial statements to Parliament as public documents.
  • These budgets may only exclude information that would do demonstrable harm to legitimate national security operations. Even then, these details should be disclosed to Parliament's intelligence committee behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, just like all the other reform measures proposed by the Matthews Commission, these proposals have been quietly shelved by the Zuma administration. That's why today, in 2017, we're still giving Mahlobo a 'birthday cheque' budget.

You can easily argue that State Security's mandate requires some parts of its budget to be kept confidential. But instead, the SSA's budget is subject to blanket secrecy – the average MP knows as much about what the Agency spends on pot plants and coffee filters as they do about what's spent on the NCC, their mass surveillance facility on the outskirts of Pretoria.

If South Africa finds the political will, today's could be the last 'birthday cheque' budget the Minister ever gets.

Parliament's intelligence committee, which meets behind closed doors, does get an exclusive peek at very limited 'administrative' budget information, as well as a few pages from the Auditor-General. But the serious lack of transparency makes it impossible to track misspending. The Auditor General has given State Security's account a qualified audit year on year. In the most recent available audit (for the 2014/2015 year, though only made public six months ago), the AG found that the Agency has a "deficiency in internal controls", and made other serious findings against the management of the SSA account, among them that "effective steps were not taken to prevent irregular spending".

Budgets spent in secret are a petri dish for irregularities and abuse of power. If any steps have been taken to remedy this, they haven't been publicly declared. In the meantime, we can take it more or less as a fact that State Security's resources are being used in ways that violate the law, and often with expressly anti democratic purposes. This same SSA is charged with spying on journalists, as well as unionists and political activists, with almost no oversight or accountability. The SSA has also recently been dragged to court by a former union leader who says government agents funded him to set up a bogus union to take down Amcu.

There are encouraging signs. The new Inspector General of Intelligence, Dr Setlhomamaru Dintwe, has an opportunity to build this long vacant oversight body into a transparent, independent and credible watchdog, with a sufficient budget to fulfil its mandate. Parliament's intelligence committee, with ANC veteran Charles Nqakula as its new chairperson, has taken a few steps towards a more transparent approach to oversight (the appointment of Dr Dintwe being a case in point). The opposition parties, the ANC's alliance partners, and many leaders of the ANC itself, have recognised that the spooks need to be reined in. And as anyone who's spent five minutes on #CountryDuty knows, the public is right there with them.

If we want to accomplish this, the blueprint for reforms are right there in front of us, in that long buried report of the Matthews Commission. Who knows? If South Africa finds the political will, today's could be the last 'birthday cheque' budget the Minister ever gets.