24 July 2002

South Africa: History Archive (SAHA) Wins Access to "Secret" Apartheid-Era Documents

Johannesburg — The South African History Archive (Saha) has reached an out of court settlement in a landmark case for access to apartheid-era military intelligence records.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) agreed to hand over the documents on August 6, said Saha director Verne Harris on Tuesday but added that it was, "still a delicate matter".

The Pretoria High Court action between the SANDF and Saha is amongst the first of its kind in terms of the Promotion to Access of Information Act 2000.

It was launched by Saha last month after the archive failed to gain access to historical documents including military intelligence file lists.

According to court papers, the information was withheld because SANDF claimed the lists had "not been declassified" or had been classified as secret because "they contain information relating to the defence of the Republic".

Saha challenged the explanation and applied to the High Court for a review of the SANDF's decision.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), which has powers to monitor and oversee the implementation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, is considering a formal complaint lodged against the Department of Justice and the National Intelligence Agency by Saha last month.

Saha alleges that the two government departments have "seriously neglected their duties" in terms of the Act and the constitutional right of access to information.

The complaint stems from "sensitive" TRC files that Saha has unsuccessfully attempted to gain access to since last year.

HRC commissioner Leon Wessels, on Wednesday said it was "one of the first complaints of its kind" under the Act and that he was "not entirely sure" how the HRC would proceed.

"[We will] try bringing together the parties concerned, so that an amicable solution might be reached," he said.

Wessels said he was busy trying to implement HRC's obligations in terms of the Act.

The HRC is tasked with ensuring that all private and public bodies produce "manuals" detailing personal information about employees that is on their files.

"According to the Act, these manuals have to be completed by August 15," Wessels said, "but there is still a lot of confusion on the part of private and public bodies concerning this statutory requirement".

In a separate incident, the South African Society of Archivists (Sasa) is "outraged" over comments made by National Archivist Dr Graham Dominy at a Johannesburg conference last week.

International participants at the "faultlines in the nexus between holding records and using them" conference were told that Sasa and Saha were, among other things, "ignorant about the provisions of the Promotion of Access to Information Act".

Michele Pickover, chair of Sasa and a board member of Saha, said Dominy's comments were "unethical, shocking and disturbing" and did not bode well for South African archivists.

"Dr Dominy has a closed approach and seems to be going backwards into the mentality of apartheid," she said.

She added that Sasa was drafting a "strongly worded" letter to director-general Rob Adam of the department of arts, science, culture and technology under whose auspices the National Archives function.

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