The paper chasers

2010-02-19 00:00

THE wars alluded to in the title of Paper Wars are those fought — and still being fought — by organisations and individuals in a bid to gain access to documents and other material held in the nation’s public archives. Wars fought under the banner of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) promulgated in 2000.

Edited by Kate Allen and featuring several contributours, including Richard Calland and Verne Harris, the core of the book examines various attempts, mainly on the part of the South African History Archive (Saha), to gain access to archival material from the recent past. Attempts that have, ironically perhaps, seen archivists warring with archivists — one group operating from a human rights perspective; the others, the gatekeepers and sometimes barriers, to state archives.

Saha, established in 1988 by representatives of the Mass Democratic Movement, including the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), described itself as the first “democratic” archive in the country. Its holdings, according to Allan, “a unique collection of primary grass-roots material produced by people and organisations actively engaged in liberation struggles inside South Africa”.

To ensure its safety, the archive was first situated in Harare. Post 1990, it was relocated to Johannesburg where it is now housed in the Historical Papers section of the William Cullen Library at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In the early years of this decade, Saha redefined itself as a human rights archive committed to documenting “contemporary struggles for justice and participation in the democratic process”. This led to the creation of two programmes in 2003: the Struggles for Justice Programme (SFJ) and the Freedom of Information Project (FOIP). The latter was created to build on the foundations laid by the PAIA “which shaped the constitutional right of access to information”.

Both to use the act and to test its efficacy, the FOIP has submitted around 900 requests for information “to a range of (primarily national) government departments, parastatals and private entities, the majority on behalf of individual NGOS, activists and researchers”.

So, does the PAIA work? In answering this question, Paper Wars examines four projects: Earthlife Africa’s attempts to get information on the nuclear industry; Saha’s Nuclear Weapons History Project (“a project seen as necessary because neither the apartheid government nor the post-1994 government embarked on a systematic release of information relating to the country’s nuclear weapons programme”); the joint Saha and Gay and Lesbian Archives Project: Gays in the Apartheid Military, which aimed to uncover information regarding apartheid SADF’s treatment of homosexuals, focusing on the work of psychiatrist Aubrey Levin at 1 Military Hospital where many alleged abuses took place; and, probably the best known, Saha’s paper war to access the files of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission.

A contributor to Paper Wars, Piers Pigou, provides a succinct record of this convoluted saga, one involving official obfuscation, stonewalling and downright obstruction that saw Saha forced to go to litigation. Eventually, Saha got what it wanted but as all the settlements were made out of court, no legal precedents were set which could be used for future applications.

So does the PAIA work? “The answer is ‘no, not yet’,” says Allan. She says there are three main reasons why it is not working effectively. “Firstly, the right of access to information is hampered by lack of resources dedicated to preserving and making available historical records from the apartheid era and to ensuring that appropriate records of management practices are implememented so that contemporary records are easily locatable.

“Interlinked with the issue is the mass destruction of records that took place prior to and shortly following the transistion to democracy.”

Secondly, those responding to access requests and their superiors, misapply legislation, while the lack of efficient appeal mechanisms sees the authorities forcing requesters to go to litigation, often it appears, in the hope this will see them back off. “That the South African Human Rights Commission and the public protector have failed to be proactive in promoting compliance with the PAIA and in enforcement has aggravated the problem,” says Allan.

Thirdly, other legislation, particularly of the apartheid era, appears to contradict some aspects of the PAIA. “This has been exacerbated by the Minister of Justice’s failure to participate in any way in efforts to resolve these difficulties,” says Allan.

All three factors indicate a lack of support within the government for the right of access to information. “Political motivation for promoting and ensuring compliance with the PAIA is clearly lacking,” says Allan, who also cites the defensive manner in which the government and political parties deal with critical engagement by civil society. “Treading on the outspoken and alleging disloyalty and subversiveness are becoming an acceptable means of maintaining support.”

It is especially ironic that this should be the case, considering, as Allan points out, that given Saha’s roots, so much time should “be spent negotiating and litigating for access to records from the incumbent government, a government formed out of the Mass Democratic Movement.”

• Paper Wars — Access to Information in South Africa edited by Kate Allan is published by Wits University Press.

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