18 March 2019

Human Rights Day Thoughts: Final Reflection of a Canadian Intern

Human Rights Day coincides with the last few days that I have in office with the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP), which makes it the perfect occasion to reflect on my time here at the South African History Archive (SAHA). I was drawn to the Canadian Bar Association's Young Lawyers International Programme because of the opportunity to work on enhancing access to justice in a foreign country and to experience human rights law in practice. Upon understanding that SAHA works with access to information legislation, I was excited to see how this would apply to South African citizens in their day to day lives and subsequently, listed SAHA as a top choice. A day after landing in Johannesburg, the FOIP team welcomed me into their offices and informed me of their plans to conduct community training sessions around Gauteng. It was clear from the start that I would be actively engaging with those who require access to and have been deprived of basic human rights.

Over the last six months my work included, but was not limited to, submitting requests under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), helping organise community training sessions, gaining an in depth and personal connection to the value of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and conducting legal research.

The majority of the requests that I sent out are related to an ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Project with the aim of bringing as many Apartheid Era records as possible out of government archives for public access. I coordinated and attended the recording of podcasts where interviewees discussed the impact of the TRC on their lives and gave us emotional recounts of their experiences during the Boipatong Massacre. More recently, I contributed to the 2018 Shadow Report. Following its predecessors, the report details rates of compliance with PAIA requests sent by various members of the Access to Information Network and provides recommendations regarding how to improve the saddening data. I also visited the South African Police Services Heritage Museum in Pretoria to view their records collected during the Apartheid Era. We viewed a number of articles dating back to the 1960s. This experience highlighted the need for preservation of historical records in the form of archiving.

I also worked extensively on requests that were directed toward corporate bodies and the levels of transparency we can achieve regarding their internal structures and decision-making processes that involve public funds. With the 2019 elections just around the corner, SAHA believes it is important to highlight the role and levels of involvement of corporations in the democratic process.

Other PAIA requests of significance were those we sent out on behalf of the communities that we had the privilege of visiting. On these trips we informed community leaders of the type of information that could be attained with PAIA and how it would be useful to them day to day. More importantly, we held interactive drafting sessions where leaders were given a chance to put what they learned to the test and improve their skills. To demonstrate the effectiveness of PAIA, we would take the issues discussed during the breakout sessions and submit those requests for them. We made requests for information regarding various types of basic services including electricity provision, sewage maintenance, and RDP housing allocation. This exercise provided practical examples of how access to information legislation helps citizens access their basic human rights.

The research I completed largely involved working with external investigative journalists. They were interested in corporate transparency and using the available access to information legislation to find out about inner structures of private organisations. I found this to be meaningful and relevant because of the increasingly prevalent issue of corporate interference in politics and due to my previous experience in corporate law. Shockingly, I found greater rates of compliance and responsiveness from corporate rather than public bodies when corresponding with various offices and departments. The research has been exciting given the reach and significance it has within South Africa and in the international community. It highlights the need for improvements to certain PAIA provisions in order for corporate opacity to decline and transparency to rise. Moreover, SAHA has given me great opportunities to witness the law in action, such as attending the decision on leave to appeal in the SAHA v South African Reserve Bank matter.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have been involved in many projects in my short time at SAHA. The team is composed of individuals that are dedicated to extending the boundaries of access to information legislation in South Africa. It is clear that they do meaningful work to promote and protect Section 32 of the Constitution.

Access to justice as a human right is articulated not only in the South African Constitution, but also as an United Nations Sustainability Goal. Goal Number 16 is to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. This involves implementing efficient and transparent regulations as well as thorough and realistic government budgets. One of the best ways to achieve this goal is to get active in holding elected official accountable for their decisions by means of access to information requests. While the UN uses the existence of access to information legislation in a nation as an indicator of measurement regarding this goal, my work at SAHA has revealed the need for additional indicators. PAIA is advanced as far as legislation goes, however, much of it remains inactive without the full implementation of the powers of the Information Regulator. PAIA has the potential to be a stronger tool for attaining transparency, but these additional provisions must be active first. The numbers reflected in the 2018 Shadow Report indicate the need for access to information to not only exist in a nation, but be fully implemented to be of full value.

I consider myself fortunate to have had an exceptional experience working at SAHA. On the whole, I feel as though I achieved what I set out to do, to continue to improve access to justice and work with human rights law. In my short time here, I have gained an appreciation for access to information legislation and a sense of the reach it has into the lives of individuals around the country. Coming out of this term, I feel more aware of the political realities in South Africa, but I also recognise the potential for growth and development. I am incredibly grateful for the patient, passionate, and steadfast team that I had the pleasure of working with on several meaningful projects. Their encouragement and positivity made this internship a joy to partake in.