26 July 2012

Secret contracts at the City of Johannesburg

The City of Johannesburg has refused to show copies of contracts it considers confidential to the Municipal Public Accounts Committee (MPAC), unless MPAC members sign confidentiality agreements.

Reports indicate that the discussion regarding confidential contracts arose as a result of members of the Democratic Alliance questioning the legality of contracts the city entered into for hosting the Miss World competition in 2008 and 2009, on which the city spent over R120 million.

ANC members sought to introduce a rule which would allow the council to classify any document as sensitive, requiring members of MPAC to agree to keep the information confidential before reviewing the documents.

The position of ANC members of the council brings to fruition fears expressed by civil society in relation to the potentially broad use and application of the Protection of State Information Bill (commonly known as the secrecy bill), should it become law in its current format.

The Ministry and Department of State Security responsible for the bill have insisted that it will not be used to classify documents that are not related to national security. However, the actions by council members suggest that the law would be seen as a green light to keep information regarding expenditure of public funds secret from the public, allowing maladministration and corruption to remain hidden.

That the City of Johannesburg considers it appropriate for it to enter into confidential contracts in relation to the expenditure of public funds is deeply concerning. The right to access to government information is enshrined in the Constitution and practically realised through the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), a key objective of which is to promote transparency, accountability and effective governance. PAIA expressly envisages that the right to information should empower people to effectively scrutinise decision-making by public bodies. By suggesting that it can refuse to provide copies of contracts to which it is a party to the public, the City of Johannesburg is flouting the objectives of PAIA and its responsibility as a public entity.

People who do business with the government must expect the contracts they enter into to be publicly available; after all, they are receiving the public's money. To the extent any information in the contract constitutes a trade secret or commercially sensitive information, it can simply be blacked out before the contract is made public. It cannot be used as an excuse for keeping the entire contract secret.

Government at all levels must be accountable to the people it serves. The City of Johannesburg's actions are one more frightful indication of the current government's unwillingness to be answerable to its citizens.