Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
19 November 2009

Privacy? Security? Oh ple-e-ease!

Sometimes a politician says something so daft and indefensible that one cannot but wonder whether he or she thinks ordinary voters are complete and utter fools. Maybe this does not surprise many people because they have come to expect that politicians will lie to them. But being an eternal optimist – one of the few paid up member of the chattering classes in South Africa who seemingly still believe that voters are, as a general rule, not nearly as stupid as politicians believe they are – it really irritates the hell out of me.

That is why the reasons given by National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu for not releasing a “detailed breakdown” of all MPs travel records to provide evidence that the system is being milked, seem so preposterous. ID Leader, Patricia de Lille claims that MPs with distant homes and constituencies are are allegedly skimming off up to R40 000 a month in travel claims by using their cars for journeys that would be cheaper by plane and requested the details from Sisulu to back up her claims.

Sisulu refused, saying that while he supported De Lille’s attempts to expose alleged abuse, disclosing travel records could infringe on MPs’ right to privacy and “pose a security risk” to them.

He might as well have said: “Yes they are stealing us blind and I do not want to public to know this, so I am not going to give you details of MPs travel records.” At least that would have been honest.

Let us get this straight: we pay MP’s to visit their constituencies to do what they have been elected to do, namely to represent us and to look after our interests. (This, at least, is the theory, but because of our pure proportional representation electoral system, many MP’s do not really represent anyone. I for one would love to know which MP represents me, but even when I phoned the local ANC office they could not or would not tell me and refused to answer any questions about my Parliamentary representative.)

But according to our Speaker we are not allowed to know how much we pay our MP’s to visit us because this would infringe their privacy and pose a security risk. How dare we ask. Next thing we would demand to actually speak to our MP’s when they visit us and this might infringe on their right to privacy and might pose a security risk to them. Who the hell do we think we are!

This is utterly ridiculous.

The Constitutional Court has stated that the protection of the right to privacy could be understood by thinking of privacy rights in terms of an onion. There are layers of privacy and the closer one gets to the inner sanctum of an individual’s life (the core of the onion, so to speak), the more strictly will privacy rights be protected. Conversely, the closer one gets to the public life and duties of an individual the weaker the privacy protection.

In terms of this metaphor, the details of MP’s travel arrangements when they travel to their constituencies with our money to represent us can be viewed as the outer skin of the onion. MP’s are exercising a public function for which they are paid with public money when they embark on such travel. Hence there is absolutely no privacy rights involved here that needs to be protected.

There is of course a right involved here, but not the right to privacy brandished by Sisulu. The right here is the right of all citizens to know whether the money we spent on our public representatives to perform a public function for our benefit, is spent wisely, or whether the system is being abused by our elected representatives and whether some of them might not have  committed a crime by defrauding Parliament.

Simple really.

Because Sisulu’s statement is so ludicrous, I will assume that it amounts to an admission that some MP’s have indeed abused the system, have defrauded Parliament and should be tried for fraud.

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