24 May 2016

Record keeping shouldn’t be this hard

Record keeping is critical to ensuring that information remains available and accessible in the future. Indeed, this was one of the primary motivations behind setting up the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) originally in seeking to encourage and lobby for efficient record keeping as a means to ensuring access to information. The FOIP team was again reminded of this oft-forgotten but critical element of access to information when it asked for records from the Office of the President around the cost of relocating Parliament.

During the 2016 State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma asked Parliament to consider “the maintenance of two capitals, Pretoria as the administrative one and Cape Town as the legislative capital.” According to the President, this is a “big expenditure item” which requires the attention of Parliament soon.” Significantly, this is not the first time government has considered the maintenance of two capitals as ex-President Nelson Mandela, during his presidency, requested KPMG investigate the cost of maintaining the unusual circumstance of continuing with two capitals and all the attendant expense that brings.

As a result of the President’s statements, on the 22nd of February 2016, SAHA submitted a request to the Presidency for the “report commissioned by ex-President Nelson Mandela, sometime during 1994 – 1999, and drafted by KPMG, on the cost of relocating Parliament from Cape Town to Pretoria.” Given that the report was drafted some time ago, the Presidency asked for a 30-day extension to allow them sufficient time to search for the requested record.

After searching, the Presidency responded on the 06th May 2016 indicating by way of an affidavit that the record “could not be found.” Despite an email exchange attached to the affidavit indicating that records of Presidents’ past “are usually filed and archived after each term of office of the political office bearer” the central registry of the Presidency could not locate the document and, accordingly, the request for information was denied. This worryingly suggests non-compliance with section 11(2) of the National Archives of South Africa Act, 1996, which requires that public records “having enduring value shall be transferred to an archives repository when they have been in existence for 20 years.”

One wonders how different the debate around relocating Parliament would be if this document could be located. The report would enable government to ground its discussion around relocation in verifiable facts, given that they were interrogated by a professional auditing company. Accusations of political goals being placed above financial constraints could easily be countered with a demonstrable costs/benefit analysis, as opposed to invoking wild assertion and untested statements on the cost of maintaining Parliament.

The ultimate cost, however, will be borne by the voting public who must now endure uninformed debate around one of its most vital institutions, Parliament, or pay twice for the same investigation. At best, the debate around relocating Parliament gets lost in a sea of unsubstantiated argument and political noise amounting to nothing but non-corroborated assertion and counter assertion.  At worst, the South African people must, again, bear the expense of government conducting another investigation into the expense of relocating Parliament in the vain hope of creating informed discussion. This expense could have entirely been avoided had the records been kept in accordance with archival legislation. Record keeping shouldn’t be this hard and, as this example demonstrates, the consequences of not doing so can be very, very expensive.