08 July 2016

An Intern Reflects: 6 Month Internship at SAHA

Six months ago, I landed at OR Tambo International Airport not knowing what to expect from my placement in the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) at the South African History Archive (SAHA) as a part of the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Program. Having previously worked as a lawyer in medical malpractice litigation I knew my internship would be a drastic change from my day to day life in Canada. I am happy to report that it has been a positive one.

I arrived wide eyed and eager to learn about the intricacies of access to information in South Africa. During my internship I was exposed to the unfinished business of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the shortcomings of certain provisions in the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 (PAIA), and worked on submitting requests to private corporations, among other things.

As the FOIP intern, I had the opportunity to help the team in a variety of matters ranging from submitting requests on behalf of academic researchers to drafting research memos on our litigation files. For instance, SAHA has filed papers against several government bodies, such as the Department of Justice (DOJ). One of the first and most startling things I worked on was reviewing a number of records released by the DOJ, in response to the information request on which the litigation is based it is essential to review any documents that are released to SAHA subsequent to the submission of requests to ensure the public body is complying with their statutory obligations.

In the case of SAHA’s PAIA request for transcripts of hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an issue arose when the DOJ released one set of redacted records, then another set of clean, un-redacted records. I was tasked with drafting a response to the DOJ on the issues of confidential information and to request confirmation on whether section 46 of PAIA, concerning a public interest override, had been applied to the transcripts.

It has been incredibly meaningful to work with a passionate team that continues to push the boundaries of freedom of information. It is a long and often difficult process to launch litigation but I have found that as an activist NGO, SAHA does not lose its stride in promoting this constitutionally protected right.

Further, I conducted research on a multitude of topics surrounding the current international trends of freedom of information (FOI). For instance, the legislative ground for refusing access to records in order to protect police dockets in bail proceedings, law enforcement and legal proceedings. It has been interesting to analyse the differences between a number of foreign jurisdictions. PAIA is undoubtedly the most progressive FOI law in Africa and arguably more advanced than Canada’s Access to Information Act. Section 32 of South Africa’s Constitution protects the right of access to information and extends this right to foreign nationals not resident in South Africa. It is also one of the few FOI statutes that provides for requesters to ask for publicly held records as well as records from private bodies.

However, in my short but telling time here, the compliance with PAIA is less than impressive. The ambition of such a progressive law seems to have fallen short in practice, which is why the work at SAHA is imperative. I have been very fortunate to work with the FOIP team on significant issues that continue to plague South Africans today and thank SAHA for teaching me about the importance of access to information.

"My 6 month internship in the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) at SAHA has been an exceptional experience. I had the opportunity to immerse myself in South African culture and learned so much about its freedom of information laws. Not only did I apply a legal mind when submitting certain requests, I also had the chance to further my research skills while managing several projects at once. I have greatly enjoyed my time at SAHA working with such a friendly and competent group who taught me about the importance of access to information as a constitutional right and its intersections with foreign jurisdictions. I will miss my teammates immensely and thank SAHA for a meaningful and worthwhile internship." 

- Kimberly Hui (Canada), FOIP Intern (January to July 2016)