POLITICS
19/04/2018 04:42 SAST | Updated 19/04/2018 10:33 SAST

WATCH: Declassifying Documents: Where Are They, And How Do We Do It?

Open Secrets director Hennie van Vuuren and research associate Michael Marchant talk us through the difficult process of reviewing apartheid-era files.

HuffPost SA

The riot of speculation about senior journalists in the industry allegedly working directly or indirectly for the apartheid government in the dying years of the regime has prompted one of the journalists named to call for the declassification of secret files from that era. The journalist intends to approach the high court to declassify the files, as this the only route by which to clear their tarnished name.

Activist and writer Hennie van Vuuren – who is also the director of Open Secrets, an institution focusing on accountability for economic crimes and human rights violations – says that this could be a long drawn-out process, as some apartheid files have been completely destroyed... but it is possible.

How do you declassify documents?

The declassification of documents is an uncomfortable move, but it can happen in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). ''A request would have to be put in to the various government departments. If they do not have the material, the relevant authorities must notify you,'' says Van Vuuren.

This process should not take more than 21 days, he says, but this is subject to whether ''government authorities are energetic and doing their jobs''. For some, it's a long process that may take years. If the ordinary citizen has an inkling that the apartheid government might have a file on them, the South African History Archive (SAHA) can make a request to government departments such as the State Security Agency in terms of the PAIA on their behalf.

Where are the documents?

Most of the classified and declassified documents are in the Public National Archive. ''Some of these documents could reside with the military and national intelligence, as well as the police," Van Vuuren says. Allegations that journalists were apartheid informers or spies are nothing new, he adds – it is information that was brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Interestingly, Van Vuuren says that after 30 years, files should be automatically declassified – but this is being hindered by an incredible backlog in various departments.

Will the release of these documents be in the public interest?

It is not up to the individual whether or not they share their apartheid files – these documents must be accessible to all ordinary citizens from the public national archive. ''Government departments have their own archivists in their individual departments that have volumes of files – such as the [then] department of foreign affairs, the police, the military and the department of justice, who manage the TRC records,'' says Van Vuuren.

South Africans should appreciate that this process may be tricky, because according to the Open Secrets director, there is a possibility that dozens of documents were destroyed by the apartheid government – which was then a highly securitised state. So this process of new healing for South Africans who want to revisit the past requires a lot of work, and it may take years for the truth to be uncovered.

In a 2017 interview with HuffPost, Van Vuuren and his Open Secrets colleague Michael Marchant explained that we really have no knowledge of what occurred in South Africa's apartheid past. They laid out how that intricate network worked, as well as how this network reveals that a lot of information could still be found in apartheid archives.

Research associate Marchant stated that the pursuit of this information can have several complications, as the PAIA is great on paper, but not in practice.

"Our experience is that state institutions are reluctant to share information," he said. "What often happens is that the request is refused, which then leads to litigation. Apartheid-era files will take some time, as some files relating to intelligence agencies such as Stratcom have been destroyed. We ultimately need to be having a bigger conversation about the proactive release of the apartheid files."