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Access to information, the secrets act and the freedom of information are explored in discussions and an exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in partnership with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust and the South African History Archive.
TRANSPARENCY and secrecy, and the organs of state guiding them, is the kernel of a two-day dialogue and debate at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The Promotion of Access to Information Act will form the premise of the dialogue and formal discussion, which is organised by the foundation in partnership with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust and the South African History Archive. An exhibition will run concurrently.

The event will take place at the foundation’s offices in Houghton, on 24 and 25 February.

Passed in 2000, the Act dissolved the old apartheid culture of secrecy in state and private institutions. It seeks to foster a culture of transparency and accountability, and uphold each individual’s right of access to information, either held by a public or private institution and that might be required for the exercise or protection of any right.

It also acknowledges the need to educate citizens on their rights, enabling them to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Sello Hatang, the foundation’s spokesman, says the dialogue and formal discussion will be on exploring the primary obstacles to that Act.

He says it underpins South Africa’s freedom of information policy, which gives citizens access to information and archives; protection of privacy and whistleblowers; and access to meetings of government structures. “The latter got lost along the way.”

Secrets Act
However, today South Africa also has a new Archives Act and a Protected Disclosures Act. A bill for the protection of personal information is also in parliament, “as is a bill to replace the 1982 Protection of Information Act, our apartheid-era Official Secrets Act. Implementation of this legislation has left much to be desired,” Hatang notes.

The foundation argues that the Freedom of Information Act has not found a “favourable” environment in post-apartheid South Africa. “Cultures of secrecy are widespread in society, flowing from a range of sources, including apartheid state milieus and the experiences of exile, underground and armed struggle,” it says on its website.

It also argues that the country’s protracted transition from apartheid to democracy provided space for more or less secret deals, which have stimulated intense sensitivity. Public discourses generally and referencing of pasts in particular are circumscribed by secrets, taboos and disavowals.

“We plan to mark the tenth anniversary of the coming into operation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act by simultaneously hosting a dialogue forum exploring the above questions and launching an exhibition on the life and work of one of South Africa’s great disavowed voices – Robert Sobukwe,” it says.

The opening of debate on Thursday will coincide with the launch of an exhibition titled Remember Africa: Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924-1978). The exhibition will become a permanent installation of the Sobukwe Trust.

On the second day of the event, there will be panel discussions on the secret, the taboo, and the disavowal. Each panel will comprise three speakers. “We are aiming to ensure that the panels secure a balance of scholarly, media and activist voices,” says the foundation.

Speakers include Jacob Dlamini, Dini Sobukwe, Mondli Makhanya, Nikiwe Bikitsha and Max du Preez, among others.

The foundation says the objective of this event is to create a safe space for contributors to say the unsaid. “Together with our partners, we will be looking for ways of taking the dialogue from what is a limited and privileged spacing into broader and more accessible ones.”

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