18 November 2016

What's past is prologue: A look back at our requests in 2016

The Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) gets regular glimpses into the actions of government, receiving records, nearly every week related in some way or another to the state of our nation. Whilst many notable access to information requests, made in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA), (PAIA requests) have become news stories even more have gone unmentioned. With 441 PAIA requests and counting submitted by the FOIP team thus far this year, over the next two weeks we will look at some of these requests. This week we focus on requests related to issues around land, water and education.


To provide the fullest picture of government’s delivery of housing we are always on the lookout for land issues which could do with more illumination. For this reason, we submitted a request to the Western Cape Department of Human Settlements for records related to the Mfuleni Housing Project in Cape Town. Whilst we have not yet received records in this matter, the request cuts to the heart of the type of requests we make, and indeed encourage others to make, in the public interest.

As part of our local government training programme, we submitted requests for information about consultation between municipalities and residents regarding government’s use of land. These requests served the dual purpose of gaining information that would be of assistance to the community activists we were working with as well as allowing us to check PAIA compliance levels of the municipalities we would be delivering training to. We were pleased to receive evidence of consultations from Richards Bay, Umzimkhulu, Ugu and eThekwini around this important issue.

We also submitted requests related to land use on behalf of individuals that approached SAHA for assistance, one example, is a request to Ekurhuleni municipality for records related to the development of an airfield.

Another example is a request for records related to ownership of a house. The request was submitted to Transnet for records relating to house-ownership in terms of a employee housing scheme, a particular problem for which we have been submitting requests for years. Access was refused to this information, both in response to this request as well as earlier related requests, this was on the basis of the fact that these records no longer exist. According to Transnet “a business decision was taken to close [a historic] database due to the high cost of renewing licences for the legacy system [hosting the historic Transnet data]”. While Transnet is entitled on the letter of the law to take such a decision, they have caused untold loss to thousands of ex-employees futilely attempting to prove their home ownership. This is particularly problematic given the marginalisation of these ex-employees during the apartheid years when they took part in this housing scheme.


Another critical issue facing South Africa is the lack of access to clean water. In relation to water, SAHA, approached by activists from the Right2Know Campaign (R2K), requested information related to underwater piping in the Makause informal community. The documents released under this request, especially documents with information about the location of the piping, has been of great assistance to the community activists of Makause as it has provided them with a clear indication of where they can expect water to come from in their community. We also submitted requests to Emfuleni, Makana and eThekwini for records on the cleanliness of their water, with varying degrees of compliance.


Ensuring learners receive a nutritious, well-balanced meal in the morning is essential to their success as a child cannot learn on an empty stomach. To gain a better understanding of the logistics behind government’s National School Nutrition Programme (NSN) we submitted multiple requests to the Department of Basic Education and all the Provincial Departments of Education for records relating to the primary school feeding schemes from 2014 to present. Of the 10 PAIA request submitted, only the Gauteng Department of Education, the Western Cape Provincial Department of Education and the Department of Basic Education released records. The records released provide insight into the effectiveness of the programme and how it can be improved in the future, beginning with better compliance of these bodies responsibility to make records freely available. 

“What’s past is prologue” or so Shakespeare wrote, a most apt description on the state of access to information in South Africa’s 2016 and how we can expect more of the same in 2017. Whilst there are some successes to be celebrated, these requests represent a fraction of the requests submitted by the FOIP team with so many of our requests having been denied in the absence of a governmental push to change attitudes and practices towards access to information. If what is past for 2016 amounts to a prologue of 2017, there is still much more work to be done by civil society and the state in bettering access to information for all.