SA defence portfolio committee discusses transparency

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The Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans has decided to hear a Department of Defence briefing on the combat readiness of the South African National Defence Force in camera despite strong objections by Democratic Party MP David Maynier.

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group says the majority of MPs on the committee believed the briefing could raise sensitive issues that, in the words of African National Congress MP Stella Ndabeni “it would be preferable not to disclose in public.”

But the PMG notes Maynier “argued persistently that the Constitution required disclosure, unless good reasons could be shown for withholding this information.”

Maynier suggested that unless it could be shown that the disclosure of such information would cause significant harm meetings should not be closed.

He pointed out that military personnel had, in their 2008 Annual Report and in press briefings, mentioned the size and readiness of combat forces.

The DA MP proposed that the committee should call upon experts to advise it, so that MP could develop criteria on what kind of information could be publicly disclosed, and what could not, as he believed that secrecy should be the exception, and not the rule.

If the Department invoked secrecy, it had to be properly justified. A broad and ambiguous declaration of “national security” was not, in his view, sufficient to justify the closure of the meeting.

Maynier referred to a recent discussion within the ANC, when one of its members had ventured that defence disclosure favoured “the enemy”, to which another had replied that the country had no enemies. Maynier asked why then, in view of the latter statement, disclosure was likely to cause significant harm.

ANC MP Nelson Diale countered that it “was not possible to anticipate whether the country had enemies, and, if so, who they were. He also did not agree that there had to be public disclosure.”

Maynier said that he had not argued that the military should disclose all. It was rather a matter of developing criteria to decide what could be disclosed, and what should not be disclosed. The military itself had indicated its full strength of 74 000 in its 2008 Annual Report. If combat readiness was now claimed to be sensitive, then he questioned why had there been media briefings in November 2008 by the Air Force and the Navy on readiness.

Acting Secretary of Defence Tsepe Motumi noted that the briefings that Maynier had referred to “were primarily public relations exercises, concerned with showcasing. They could not be described as proper combat readiness briefings.”