Nothing but the hidden truth

Bongani Majola

Minister of Intelligence Lindiwe Sisulu and the Department of Justice openly contradicted each other on the whereabouts of thousands of sensitive Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) documents this week, heightening speculation that the documents have been sanitised or shredded by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

The Mail & Guardian reported last week that at least 34 boxes and two folders containing thousands of TRC documents had disappeared. They included the complete public record of the TRC hearings into apartheid’s chemical and biological warfare programme, and a file on the uncompleted probe into the 1998 assassination of African National Congress chief representative in Paris, Dulcie September.

This followed a series of denials that the documents existed, by both the NIA and the justice department in response to a South African History Archive’s persistent requests.

Reacting to the M&G report, Sisulu released a statement asserting that the documents are “in the safekeeping of the department of justice ...
NIA’s involvement with these documents is to advise the department regarding their appropriate classification before they are forwarded to the National Archives”. The NIA’s involvement, added Sisulu, was “to provide security advice”.

However, justice department spokesperson Paul Setsetse said this week the NIA had the documents for safekeeping, as it was “the most secure place” in which to hold them.

“There is nothing untoward or strange about this, and we have no knowledge of these documents being perused by the NIA,” he said.

The M&G has seen correspondence on the issue beginning in 1999 between the NIA and the justice department on one hand and Verne Harris, director of South African History Archive at Wits, on the other. Harris has formally requested access to the documents in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, under which it is an offence to destroy, damage or alter or conceal a record.

In a letter to Harris dated January 21 this year, the NIA’s information officer, Vusi Mavimbela, said it was difficult for the agency “to confirm or verify the existence of the mentioned ‘sensitive’ documents as we did not have access to their content”. Mavimbela asked for more information on the nature of the documents.

Harris finds it amusing that “two state departments are pointing fingers at each other and at the same time expect us to believe the records are safe.

“These departments are making a mockery of our constitutional right of access to information and at least one of them seems to be breaking the law.”

The chairperson of the South African Society of Archivists, Michelle Pickover, said the whole idea of an archive is to have it accessible. “This is a betrayal of the founding rationale of the TRC.” She asked why there were difficulties of access to the “catharsis of our nation”.

Entering the fray this week, the Democratic Alliance’s Dene Smuts called for the files to be “despatched to the National Archives, where they belong”.

Smuts said any further attempt to sit on the files or to keep them available “for the spooks to ‘advise’ the government only raises suspicion that they are in fact sensitive for reasons that now invite speculation”.

Responding to researchers’ suggestion that there was nothing extremely damaging in the files, Setsetse said: “We were given the documents as classified information, we will treat them as such.”

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