The South African Presidency has been ordered to hand over a report it commissioned on the Zimbabwe elections in 2002, after keeping it hidden for more than ten years.
This order was handed down by the North Gauteng High Court on Wednesday morning, four years after the application to have the report made public was filed by a leading South African newspaper.
The Mail & Guardian has been trying to have the report released since 2008, amid widespread speculation that it contained evidence showing that the 2002 disputed election in Zimbabwe was not free or fair. High Court Judge Joseph Raulinga's ruling on Wednesday has now confirmed that the report contained enough information to cast doubts on the legality of the poll.
The then South African President Thabo Mbeki had commissioned two judges to visit Zimbabwe and report back on the state of that election. This report was handed over to Mbeki but never made public, although the former President insisted the electoral process in Zimbabwe was completely democratic.
The newspaper's efforts to access the details of the report were repeatedly denied, leaving it little choice but to seek the intervention of the High Court in 2008. The government, now under President Jacob Zuma's leadership, was then ordered more than a year ago to release the report.
But a lengthy appeals process was launched by President Zuma and the case eventually ended up in the Constitutional Court. That court in late 2011 referred the case back to its starting point in the High Court, saying that court needed to invoke its rights to see the report and then make a decision on whether it could be released.
Judge Raulinga had his 'judicial peek' into the document last year and his judgement on Wednesday is based on this. He said in his ruling that: "Without disclosing the contents of the report I can reveal that the report potentially discloses evidence of substantial contravention of, or failure to comply with the law."
He added: "I am of the view that the public interest supersedes the harm that may ensue should the report be released."
The Presidency now has 10 days to release the report or appeal, which Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes said could still happen. He told SW Radio Africa that they are "delighted" with the ruling because it makes it clear that the public interest in the case is "real and very urgent."
"It is a huge step in what has been a four year long battle. With a fresh election looming in Zimbabwe this information is more relevant and more important than ever and we hope the government will not delay any longer," Dawes said.
He added: "Clearly they have delayed because what the report is going to show is that there were serious problems with the 2002 election. And that reflects badly on the SA government at the time and also reflects badly on ZANU PF. And it could create awkwardness between two governments."
"But we believe people need to know what happened and this court ruling confirms that we have a right to let people know," he said.