01 April 2016

Free up information on our past, painful though it may be

A final, calculated act of vandalism by the apartheid state was the destruction of more than six-million pages of documents that had been generated by the state security agencies. Although an important part of our history went up in smoke above the steel furnaces outside Pretoria, a far greater volume of records remains largely untouched in dark storage facilities across the highveld.

These are the records of our nation’s past and its pain. Far too much of this remains secret.

The South African History Archive has supported the research of the Open Secrets project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation by trying to use freedom of information legislation to access such records. This forms part of an ongoing research focus on the effect of sanctions-busting as well as economic crime on South Africa’s present.

Our archives could provide a rich record of the hyper-secretive final years of white minority rule – a rare glimpse into an aspect of our past that not even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was able to fully expose.

The biggest challenge to truth-telling appears to be, inexplicably, key government departments that continue to deny the public access to apartheid-era material.

The South African Reserve Bank and the justice department are two key institutions of state that have recently denied the Open Secrets project access to information it deems critical to its research. Though the history archive, with the assistance of Lawyers for Human Rights, has been forced to challenge those cases in court, the relevant departments have yet to provide a convincing reason why they have become gatekeepers for the secrets of a discredited regime.

A reason for denying access to information is often hinged on a mix of political conservatism and bureaucratic inefficiency that sees government departments acting in a manner that is errant and contrary to the rule of law.

The reasons for denying access are baffling, such as the Reserve Bank’s claim that the freedom of information law does not apply to it. The justice department claims it does not have the material that formed the basis of the TRC report – and of which it alone is the custodian. Surely the justice minister and the Reserve Bank governor cannot agree with a legal argument that is contrary to the public interest and that challenges the constitutional right to know?

The court papers argue that hidden histories serve the interests of the powerful and undermine democratic consolidation.

Greater transparency and access to information enables informed research to take place to help the public make informed opinions. This helps us to better understand our present and ensure that criminal practices such as corruption do not continue to shape our future. A nation that has a full understanding of its past is better placed to avoid repeating the same mistakes.


This comment piece by Open Secrets' Hennie van Vuuren was originally published as part of a longer story by Jessica Bezuidenhout in the Mail & Guardian on 11 March 2016.