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28 September 2011 at 20:28 - Posted by Anonymous

Government keeping nation in dark


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Fewer than half of government departments comply with the constitutional right of citizens to access information, the SA Human Rights Commission said on Wednesday.

Local governments and municipalities in particular were erring by not being transparent, deputy CEO Naledzani Mukwevho told a national information officers' forum in Johannesburg.

Of the 282 municipalities, only 20 had complied with legislation.

"Under 50% [of all government departments] are not complying with the Promotion of Access to Information Act [Paia]," he said.

"We are convinced that if ordinary people have access to information... they can participate. They have the means to hold government accountable."

Section 32 of the constitution gives everyone the right of access to any information held by the state.

This could include information on where a person featured on the RDP housing list or statistics on HIV/Aids prevalence.

ANC MP Luwellyn Landers, who chairs parliament's justice and constitutional development portfolio committee, questioned how effective the Paia was.

"Has Paia, with your [information officers'] help succeeded in achieving the rights set out in section 32?" he asked.

An Open Democracy Advance Centre survey had found that government departments and business often used delaying tactics or stonewalling to avoid meeting requests for access to information, he said.

"Mute refusals are still too common. Clearly, we have passed the point when Paia's effectiveness should have been reviewed. Particularly issues around enforcement, timeframes, and the need or desirability for an information commissioner are among the issues requiring review."

The commission's Jenny Love said people needed to understand their right to equality and how this could be achieved.

In order to give weight to these rights, the government needed to be transparent about and accountable and responsible for the problems which caused inequality in the country.

"Johannesburg has the greatest income and equality disparity in the whole world. We are not giving the people of this country the kind of information that makes them act [on their right to better their circumstances]," she said.

"We need confidence to depend on our citizenry and not simply hope for some degree of blind patience."

Love said one of the hurdles in providing for the right to access information was that some officials denied it on the grounds that disclosure could see them being thrown in front of a "kangaroo court".

While it was accepted that some information was classified and not in the public interest, the definition was not always clear cut.

"I am concerned about the absence of the notion of public interest... there's a lot of information that can get cloaked in the shading of security."

High Court judge Jody Kollapen echoed Love's concern, saying a lack of accountability, openness and responsiveness by the government about inequalities was a "recipe for social disaster".

"It's a denial of whatever this constitution stands for."

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