The power of information

Posted on March 29, 2012
The right to information is a powerful tool for protecting, promoting and realising all basic human rights. However, in South Africa, utilisation of the right is very poor. Most South Africans are unaware of their right and the power it affords them. This lack of awareness is compounded by poor record keeping and low investment in the right, in terms of implementation and resources, within bodies that hold information. The South African History Archive (SAHA) is working with non-government organisations and communities to improve awareness about the right and its power in informing advocacy campaigns and demands for change.

The right to information refers to the right of ordinary people to have access to any record held by the government or records held by private entities that may affect them or their communities. It allows citizens to hold their governments accountable for the decisions they make, to expose corruption, inefficiency and waste, to push for service delivery and participate in policy making. It is the lifeblood of democracy.

The importance of the right to information and the need to overcome the legacy of secrecy instilled by the apartheid state was recognised by the drafters of the South African Constitution, who enshrined the right to information in the Bill of Rights. Subsequently the government enacted the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), which provides for the practical implementation of the right.

On its introduction in 2000, PAIA was heralded globally as providing a new gold standard in access to information laws. However, over a decade later, the failure of information holders to implement adequate systems to facilitate the right and the lack of awareness of the right among ordinary South Africans, means that the right is seldom realised.

If the right is to be effective, information holders must implement appropriate record keeping systems. Requests for information are rarely responded to within the 30 days provided under PAIA because information holders do not have record keeping systems that allow for the timely identification and retrieval of information requested. Data collected by the PAIA Civil Society Network over the 12 month period concluding on 30 July 2011, showed that three quarters of the 162 requests made by members of that network were not responded to within the time allowed under PAIA. Given the often time-bound value of information, the failure to respond to requests in a timely manner represents a denial of the right to information.

Furthermore, many requests for information are denied on the basis that the information cannot be found. This again highlights the failure of many information holders to implement appropriate record keeping systems, without which records that are essential to the realisation of rights may be lost or destroyed.

Lack of knowledge about the right within public and private bodies is also a key problem in effective realisation of the right. The PAIA Civil Society Network data revealed that in three quarters of the instances where information was refused, it was on the basis that the body simply failed to respond to the request at all. This highlights the need for urgent training about the right within those bodies as well as the allocation of resources for implementation needs, such as the establishment of specialised units within bodies to respond to requests.

Awareness about the right is also a problem within society at large. In 2007 SAHA interviewed 42 non-government and community based organisations to assess knowledge about the right within the sector. Almost half of the organisations had very poor knowledge of PAIA. Research conducted by the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) indicates that knowledge amongst individuals is also very poor. More than one in ten people surveyed by ODAC in 2007 felt that they did not have the right to ask the government for information, few indicated that they knew PAIA existed and of those that knew about PAIA, most did not know how to use it.

In response to this research in 2008 SAHA began working with non-government and community based organisations as well as traditionally disadvantaged communities to raise awareness about the right to information and to build capacity to engage with PAIA.

Most recently SAHA has partnered with community development workers in Rysmierbult, in the North West province, to gain information regarding the ownership of land within their community. Residents of the township were aware that surrounding lands stolen from the community during apartheid had been returned to a community trust. However, the identity of the land returned, as well as the trustees and beneficiaries of the trust, has remained a mystery to the majority of residents who have received no benefit from the land and remain impoverished and unemployed.

SAHA used PAIA to access records of the Department of Land and Rural Development identifying the land owned by the trust and to obtain documents from the trust identifying the trustees and beneficiaries of the land. The community is now working with SAHA to engage lawyers to assist them in demanding the trustees comply with their obligations under the trust agreement and to expand the beneficiaries of the trust so that all members of the community benefit from the land which is rightfully theirs. Without gaining access to the information the community would have been left in the dark as trustees continued to use the land for their own benefit and deny the community their rights.

The experience of the Rysmierbult community is just one example of how the right to information is central in enabling the realisation of other rights and how once empowered with information, communities can become activists in their own destiny.

If South Africa's democracy is to flourish and to achieve the promise of basic human rights for all, then South African's must be empowered to exercise their right to information. South Africa must overcome the legacy of secrecy instilled under apartheid and recognise that information is not a privilege, it is a right.


SAHA has developed a range of materials that are available for download, free of charge, on its website to assist those wishing to engage with PAIA -

Tammy O'Connor is the Advocacy and Training Outreach Officer, Freedom of Information Programme, South African History Archive. You can contact the Freedom of Information Programme at