Five years ago the democratic government of the Republic of South Africa, after a lengthily consultation process promulgated the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), a 45 page piece of legislation that unfortunately is still elusive to the majority of the people it was drafted to empower. Organisations charged with making sense of the words written on the paper complain about lack of financial and human resource capacity to successfully implement their mandate.

While it is a judicial fact that ignorance is not accepted as defence in a court of law, the apathy displayed by even public servants regarding the implementation of this piece of legislation is worrying.

Simply explained the PAIA or ATI is your ticket to demanding records of everything you've ever wanted to know, irrespective of whether such an information is held by government, private sector or the next person. If this is still unclear, ATI means that any question that you have in your mind that you are certain can be answered by accessing the archives can now be answered by you simply applying to access such information from whoever is holding it.
ATI is structured to explain to every citizen which information can be accessed and under which conditions can such information be denied. It is not a wholesome liberal lap but has its own shortcomings.

For example there is a clause that stipulates that, "a requester must be given access to a record of a public body if- (a) that requester complies with all the procedural requirements in this Act relating to a request for access to that record; and (b) access to that record is not refused in terms of any ground for refusal contemplated in Chapter 4 of this Part".

Chapter 4 deals with Grounds for Refusal of Access to Records and provides an Interpretation.
In the context of the third tier of government ATI means that you have the right to demand copies of all the Council Resolutions that get taken and often result in senior managers securing performance bonuses. You have the right to demand information relating to how much public servants (including managers and the mayor) earn, what their qualifications are and how they conduct performance appraisals that result in promotion or financial benefits. You have the right to demand such information from the Municipal Manager or a Senior Information Officer of your government or traditional authority.

This Act is a very powerful tool because you don't need to be a journalist or have any other credentials to enter any government office and demand information held. The onus is that all information held by government belongs to you. It is being kept on your behalf and nobody needs to make it difficult for you to know how the district and local municipality sports team performed in Kwazulu-Natal or Western Cape.

NB. Nobody has a right to refuse you and you don't need to be anyone but a human being (you don't even need to be a South African citizen).

However the Act further stipulates on Chapter 3 Section 18 that such a request can only be made on a prescribed form available at the Department of Justice. It also makes provision for "an individual who because of illiteracy or a disability is unable to make a request for access to a record of a public body in accordance with subsection (1), may make that request orally". To make matters more interesting you can demand such information in a medium of your choice, hard copy, CR-Rom, DVD, Audiotape or whatever formats you want it in.

Subsection (1) stipulates, "a request to access must be made in the prescribed form to the information officer of the public body concerned at his or her address or fax number or electronic mail address"

What's important to understand is that your request might be denied, which the Act has made provision for recourse. You can lodge an "internal appeal" before pursuing other options, including external platforms. It however needs to be denied with valid reasons that can be supported by a third independent party, suppose it goes that far.

This Act is an important piece of legislation that has some people hot under the collars over the degree of rights ceded to commoners. You can start your first request to information by demanding your own copy of this Act from the Department of Justice. Then you can have South Africa becoming a sphere you can be proud of by making it account to you by affording you any information you want to have. Remember, no one should deny you.

If you encounter any other problems relating to implementation of this important Act passed by the people centred democratic government you can contact the following organisations.
South African Human Rights Commission (011) 484 8300 * The Public Protector (013) 752 8543

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