The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, amaBhungane, on Wednesday released more than 12 000 pages of evidence about the state-funded upgrade at President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla estate.
The centre obtained the evidence from the department of public works, responsible for the R210-million upgrade, in a protracted access-to-information and legal struggle.
- July 2016: Attorney Ben Winks speaks to Stephen Grootes on what President Jacob Zuma should be liable to pay regarding his Nkandla upgrades. Listen to the full interview below.
Vinayak Bhardwaj, the centre’s advocacy co-ordinator, said: “The release of the entire cache of documents is motivated by the crucial need for transparency. This is particularly so when the same security-related arguments that originally subverted our access-to-information request now appear to filibuster publication of the public protector’s findings. The public has a right to know.”
Public protector Thuli Madonsela faces a court interdict from the police, defence, state security and public works ministers to afford them greater opportunity to intervene should they think her preliminary report contains security-sensitive information.
The centre, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, lodged a Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) request for records related to the Nkandla procurement in July last year. The department refused, claiming blanket secrecy on the grounds that the presidential estate was a national key point.
Forced to concede
As the department’s lawyers were later forced to concede, this response failed to satisfy the basic provisions of Paia.
As permitted by Paia, the centre appealed to Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi but he chose not to respond.
Legal counsel for the centre alleged in the high court in Pretoria last week that Nxesi had “flouted his statutory duty to decide the appeal. His conduct in doing so was in breach of his oath of office to respect and uphold the law”.
Last November, the centre filed a court application against Nxesi and his department. They resisted, saying in an initial affidavit that the records sought were “so replete with security related information that they cannot be disclosed without disclosing security sensitive information at the same time”.
The “security” defence finally broke down after the centre’s lawyers tracked down a civil engineer with extensive experience in public works projects. He confirmed under oath that such a project would generate many documents that had no security implications. The centre also submitted leaked Nkandla documents, which showed no security sensitive information.
The department handed over 42 files containing more than 12 000 pages in June, with minimal redactions for “security” reasons. Only three documents were withheld altogether from what the department claimed was its full trove, and which it said was the same it had disclosed to Madonsela and a ministerial task team in the course of their investigations.
Following the centre’s analysis, which showed omissions, the department handed over two further but limited sets of documentation in September.
In spite of significant information contained in the disclosures to date the centre maintains that the department has withheld high-level records involving the interactions of senior officials, the president, the minister and his deputy.
The matter was argued in the high court last week and judgement reserved ( see court record).
The centre hopes that the release of the records will not be a once-off, but stimulate further development of the Nkandla story. The centre’s joint managing partner Stefaans Brümmer, said: “We hope that this will create a feedback loop. This is a huge cache and readers may alert us to things we have missed – from which more stories may follow.”
* The authors are members of the centre and directly involved in the litigation. The centre was represented by advocates Wim Trengove, Nick Ferreira and Nasreen Rajab-Budlender, instructed by the media law team at Webber Wentzel.
* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.