This is a call to inform people about the law to initiate change

The South African equality clause states that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, in accordance with section 9 of the Constitution. It is intended to redress inequality created by the apartheid regime. But inequality still exists in South Africa, and new laws, regulations, and organisations are put in place to redress this matter. 

But the big words in our legislation cannot be understood by a layman and this poses a huge gap between the law and its accessibility to people, especially those with a low level of education. This raises the question of whether they understand the laws and regulations and if the government takes measures to ensure that its people understand the laws.

First, let’s have a discussion about the legislation introduced by the government after the apartheid era, focusing on the Protection of Personal Information Act, known as the POPI Act. It came into effect on 1 July 2020 and is described as one of the most complex laws in terms of compliance. The purpose of this legislation is to protect the personal information of citizens. It attempts to balance the right to privacy with other rights such as the right of access to information while ensuring that personal information is treated with sensitivity and that it is only collected, processed, stored, and shared with other people with the owner’s consent. 

The legislation requires that when organisations are dealing with individuals’ information, they must consider eight conditions to be fully compliant. These conditions are: accountability, processing limitation, purpose specification, further processing limitation, information quality, openness, security safeguards and data subject participation. Realistically speaking, most South Africans do not know their rights and are most likely to need the protection offered by the POPI Act. 

Second, let’s focus on civil society organisations (CSOs) and their duty to effect change and empower underserved people. Kendra Shaw stated in an article that the role of civil society organisations is to lead movements of change, including civil rights and gender equality. To demonstrate effectiveness, these organisations often display pictures and other personal information of beneficiaries in forms of media, which directly talks to the day-to-day collection and processing of personal information. When collecting this information, it is expected that civil society organisations explain to beneficiaries the importance of signing the indemnity forms. But to what extent do beneficiaries understand the content of the forms? 

Perhaps the point of departure in educating people about the law, specifically their rights in accordance with the POPI Act, should be a clear explanation of what personal information entails and how it affects everyone’s daily life. Graham Paddock, in his article Introduction to the POPI Act for Community Schemes, provides a simplified definition of personal information and fragments it into three classes: general, special and children’s personal information. This includes all demographic profile information such as identity number, age and religion of all individuals. This type of information is often on social media, by churches as well as stores during a purchase. According to this Act, people can give consent for their information to be used and they can withdraw their consent or ask for their information to be deleted to avoid misuse. In any case of POPI Act infringement or violation, the POPI Act ombudsman in Braamfontein can be contacted.

People need to know their rights and how to exercise them, which leaves civil society organisations with the task of educating people about the law and their responsibilities thereof. But the big question is whether this is a call to the government to improve access to the justice system particularly for under-served people. Or is it a call to involve the government more in the civil society organisation space in achieving their purpose to redress inequality or a need for more law professionals in the civil society organisations space? Who bears the responsibility to educate people about their rights in terms of this legislation? 

The government, civil society organisation as well as private and public institutions have a responsibility to ensure that in collecting and processing information of people, they ought to inform them of their rights. This is a call for a new South Africa, one that ensures access to the law and the justice system to everyone who lives in this country. It is a call for the government, civil society organisations and public and private institutions to take initiatives to effect change in this regard. The first step could be inaugurating measures to inform people about the law.

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Sibongile Khosa
Sibongile Khosa
Sibongile Khos is a two-time graduate from the University of Johannesburg with a Bachelor of Commerce in law and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree and currently a legal Administrator at Seriti Institute.

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