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Why protect access to information?

Before South Africa before it became a constitutional democracy with an enforceable Bill of Rights, it had a government that thrived on secrecy, clandestine activities and the suppression of information. There was no transparency or accountability.

This backdrop is referred to in the Promotion of Access to Information Act - a piece of legislation passed in response to a corresponding section in the Bill of Rights. The preamble says "the system of government in South Africa before 27 April 1994 … resulted in a secretive and unresponsive culture in public and private bodies which often led to an abuse of power and human rights violations".

The aim of this law is to "foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public and private bodies by giving effect to the right of access to information".

Section 32 - Access to information

This section, entitled, "Access to information", says:

  1. Everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.
  2. National legislation must be enacted to give effect to this right and may provide for reasonable measures to alleviate the administrative and financial burden on the state.

This section gives a person the right to all information held by the state if he or she needs it to exercise and protect a right.

For example, if the intelligence service has information about you that is stopping you from being given a job, you have the right to demand to know what that information is.

New legislation

Although the right of access to information is grounded in section 32 of the Constitution, it is to the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 to which citizens must turn for practical help.

This Act - the result of section 32(2) of the Bill of Rights, which requires parliament to pass legislation to give effect to the right in that section - gives ordinary citizens a right of access to all kinds of information held by public bodies (namely the government) and private bodies (such as companies). It offers only limited justification for withholding such information.

It also says government and private bodies must appoint an information officer, whom anyone who wants information may approach with a formal request. But the Act does not apply to certain categories of information.

The Act says the South African Human Rights Commission must monitor this new law and ensure that South Africans are aware of - and are able to use - the rights they have under this Act.

You should approach the HRC if you need help in asserting your right to access to information.

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