Quote of the week

An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.

Plasket AJ
Victoria Park Ratepayers' Association v Greyvenouw CC and others (511/03) [2003] ZAECHC 19 (11 April 2003)
5 December 2006

Ronald Suresh Roberts, where are you now that we need you?

The Promotion of Access to Information Act was – as Ghandi said about Western civilization – “a good idea”. The problem is that for most of us mere mortals who do not have the time, money or the energy, it can seem impossible to get required information out of the government or big corporations.

As the SCA points out in the judgment in Claase v The Information Officer of South African Airways (handed down last week), there have been a slew of cases in which big corporations or the government have failed to swiftly deal with requests. Inevitably these cases ended up in court because the lawyers for the big boys threw up some technicality or another.

Mr Claase, a retired pilot, wrote no more than 10 emails to get the information he needed to sue SAA for not giving him the two business class seats he was entitled to as a retired pilot. That failed so he had to take the case al the way to Bloemfontein to get the court to force SAA to provide him with the information.

In his judgment justice Combrinck is quite scathing of the behaviour of SAA and its legal representatives. It makes for satisfying reading – especially if one has ever tried to book SAA voyager miles seats only to be sent from pillar to post.

But if Mr Claase was not an old employee of SAA who knew the ropes and if he was not retired and affluent, would he ever have gone to all the trouble to get the information he needed? If he lived in an informal settlement there was no hope in hell of him getting his information.

The lesson from this is that one should “go nuclear” in any request for access to information. Threaten with higher ups (“I know Jacob Zuma/Thabo Mbeki/Nelson Mandela”), insult and shout and bombard with so many emails and letters that they cannot ignore you.

Maybe once Ronald Suresh Roberts is done with the defamation trial, he could offer his services to poor people who need information out of a big corporation or the government. That way his “relentless” tenacity would be harnessed for a good cause and he will stay out of trouble.

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