Editorial: Public interest drives info bids

Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago. (Bloomberg)

Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago. (Bloomberg)

Eskom, the South African Police Service and the department of basic education often come in for a public hammering. But this week, they are among a small group of public institutions or departments that deserve a pat on the back for generally making an effort to comply timeously with requests brought in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia).

This piece of legislation was enacted 15 years ago and serves as a vital tool in the quest to ensure greater transparency of official records in the country.
Yet statistics collated by the South African History Archive, a key driver of Paia requests, paint a worrying picture of the conduct of some public servants and their attitude to this law. Between August 2014 and February this year, the archive submitted a total of 184 requests for information and records to 53 public bodies. Fewer than 40% of those were responded to within the statutory timeframe, 20% were denied and the history archive received no response to another 25% of its submissions.

This is a sad indictment on civil servants who either do not understand the importance of producing information, which the public has a right to, or who simply lack the will to do so. It can only be hoped that their bosses are concerned about these unacceptably low compliance rates.

In the case of the South African Reserve Bank, it is just short of bizarre that a Paia request for evidence of economic crimes has had to be escalated to the courts. The information being sought could shed light on significant apartheid-era crimes. The fact that the central bank argues client confidentiality as one of its reasons for not complying is almost tragic.

The atrocities and abuses of the past have to be acknowledged if we are to guard against them happening again. There is no doubt that this case has overwhelming public interest – enough, perhaps, for Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago to take an interest. He presumably supports the citizen’s constitutional right to access important information about governance in a democratic polity.

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