The Supreme Court of Appeal has ordered the release of decades-old records which could shine a light on “significant corruption and fraud” under apartheid.
Judge Trevor Gorven on Friday found against the South African Reserve Bank (Sarb) after a six-year wrangle for access to evidence it obtained as part of investigations into large-scale fraud and the smuggling of precious metals in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The South African History Archives Trust (Saha) took Sarb to court after its application for the records, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia), was refused – a move Gorven labelled “redolent of the dark days of apartheid, where secrecy was routinely weaponised against a defenceless population”.
Gorven said Sarb’s response “bordered on the obstructive” and was “certainly not in keeping with the purpose of Paia in its outworking of the provisions of the constitution to promote openness and transparency”.
He declared Sarb’s decision unlawful and overturned a previous high court order that dismissed the case.
Saha requested the records as research material for a book on economic crime related to the late Johann Blaauw, a former army brigadier implicated in illicit arms dealing; Vito Palazzolo, a member of the Sicilian Mafia, and Robert Hill, a local businessman who fled SA after he was accused of forging Eskom bonds.
In order to release the records, Sarb said it first had to inform Blaauw, Palazzolo and Hill.
It had not been able to do so and had, as a result, refused to release them.
Gorven said both Hill, who was alive, and Palazzolo, had subsequently been tracked down. He found that “in effect, the Sarb decided to take no steps at all” to inform either of them.
Sarb argued Blaauw’s company records were “commercial information” and that to expect it to “trace the whereabouts of the company” would be unreasonable.
Gorven believed this was “an astonishing averment when official records, which can be easily accessed, contain that information”.
He ordered the release of Blaauw’s records and that Palazzolo and Hill be informed of the requests for the release of theirs.
Saha said in a statement on Saturday the case “signals a tremendous victory for democracy and our constitutional right to access information…”
“Given the alleged widespread state capture in South Africa, and untangling the extensive networks that enable corruption, it is more pressing than ever for the state to consider proactive disclosure of key archival records as a way of its stated commitment to the values of transparency and integrity.”