08 June 2015

PRESS STATEMENT: SAHA takes the battle to gain access to the TRC victims database to court

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: SAHA takes the battle to gain access to the TRC victims database to court

The South African History Archive (SAHA) has filed court papers seeking a final order compelling the Department of Justice and Correctional Service (DoJ), to grant public access to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Victims database. Court action is a last resort, and this application seeks to put an end to a six year wait for the DoJ to release the TRC Victims database to SAHA, as per a decision of the then Minister of Justice under the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000(PAIA).

The court papers for the South African History Archive v Minister of Justice and Deputy Information Officer: Department of Justice Case No. 39650/2015 matter are available on SAHA's Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) website:

South Africa’s TRC report labeled the TRC Victims database “one of the most remarkable archival collections in the country”, and stated that this information “belongs to the country”.  It is the vast repository of statistical information that gave rise to seven volumes and over 4000 pages of text that made up the TRC’s Final Report. SAHA’s longstanding engagement with the legacy of the TRC, and its commitment to preserving TRC records to improve accessibility, made requesting this database a natural continuation of its ongoing work in truth recovery.

SAHA first applied for an anonymised copy of the TRC Victims database, in a useable format, in March 2009. The then-Minister of Justice, Jeff Radebe, overturned the Department’s original refusal for this request, and in August 2009 decided that SAHA be granted access to the database save for some of the victims' personal details.

The subsequent six years have seen the DoJ repeatedly fail to provide a complete and useable copy of the database. All three versions of the database that have been provided to  SAHA have been materially incomplete: the first copy had only a single field; the second copy had three fields; and the third copy, five fields. In supporting affidavits filed as part of the application, experts who helped build the original TRC database confirmed that there are 54 fields in the database; and these 54 fields engage and interact with a further 6 core data-sets, without which, the data is meaningless.

Toerien van Wyk, Co-ordinator of the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) explains why the DoJ have not come close to fulfilling their obligations: "In light of the responsibility it has under PAIA and the Constitution to ensure that a culture of openness is nurtured across government, the Department of Justice has particular responsibility to ensure that it operates transparently and openly and provides easy access to information held within the department. It is therefore unacceptable that it is necessary for SAHA to resort to litigation in order to ensure public access to records that so clearly belong in the public domain."

The Khulumani Support Group is a key transitional justice stakeholder that requires the information on the database to continue its work with victims and survivors of apartheid. Khulumani’s Director, Marjorie Jobson, explains: “In this past week, family members of victims have called to ask, ‘my sister disappeared in 1985. I don't know if her name appears on the records of the TRC’. Without access to the TRC Victims' Database, Khulumani cannot answer these questions and the primary purpose of the TRC to provide answers for victims as the basis for restorative justice, is undermined”.

SAHA, who are represented by Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr Inc's Pro Bono and Human Rights Practice, have attempted to engage with the DoJ over a six year period, and have also attempted to resolve this issue through the South African Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector, without success. SAHA hopes that the final order it seeks will result in this valuable archival resource being supplied, to be preserved and made available for use by the public.

 For more information, please contact:

Catherine Kennedy, Director of SAHA                                                                                                                  

072 682 6240

Toerien van Wyk, Co-ordinator of the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) at SAHA

011 718 2563

8 JUNE 2015