Eish and goodbye: the pains of information-seeking

By Glenda Daniels

Sorry, in advance, to the politically correct who support sex work and to dentists who love their jobs. But in my subjective mind, while there are many torturous jobs, these two spring to mind first: selling sex to strangers and drilling into someone’s mouth. Right up there, however, has to be an aspect of my job as advocacy co-ordinator: that of “information officer”, which I performed since January 2011 at the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane).

This performance entailed making requests for information – without much success – and filling out official forms to request information from public and private bodies in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) of 2000. This Act is what the government and supporters of the secrecy Bill have been waving in our faces. In other words, the secrecy Bill balances out Paia. So, if something is classified in terms of the secrecy Bill, no problem, you can always apply, using Paia, to request the very same info get declassified. Do you sniff cumbersome and burdensome?

Alas, the present reality of Paia is already a hoot, without the secrecy Bill being passed.

In the execution of my tasks as information officer, I have ground my teeth in frustration and have had three migraines in one year, as opposed to my usual, only one. I blame Paia. It takes a very special person to do Paia requests. Someone who is patient, gentle and kind, and who doesn’t mind phoning the same person weekly, with the same conversation: “Hello, how are you, where is the information you promised to send me last week?” Then that person says to you: “Gosh, didn’t you get it?” And you go: “Gosh, no, when did you send it?” But you know the cheque is not in the post. In fact, it hasn’t gotten anywhere close to being posted.

An inordinate amount of time is spent trying to get information. I have had about a 10% success rate. To get what you need, you have to fill out a form, but there is a process and challenges to face before you send the form.

First, many people in public and private bodies seem not to know of Paia. I don’t know if they are pretending blissful ignorance. Second, they give you a name and you fill out the form and with some satisfaction and press the send button. Third, you then get a call to say that was not the correct person to deal with. So you start the process all over again. Fourth, you email, fax, and post to ensure that at least through one method the request falls onto the right lap. And then telephone to confirm receipt of the request.

To begin to describe the frustration you feel when you hear that the request was not received is beyond the power of words to describe. I grind my teeth, get a tense neck and worry about a migraine coming on, and I start again. Fax. Email. Post. Telephone. “How are you? When can I expect…?”

Our kind receptionist, Thuli, has witnessed my trying to send the same fax over and over again. She has often offered to help fax for me. Sometimes, she has discovered that I was given the wrong number.

Back to the process. It goes like this: an investigator needs information. You have to find out who the right person is to send the information to. You often get it wrong, or sometimes the wrong name is given to you, maybe in ignorance, maybe deliberately. There is no way of knowing for sure. Then, you fill out the forms. You follow up. You send again. The request is refused. You lodge an internal appeal. But you get the run-around first, to find out who you lodge the internal appeal with. When all fails you go to court. We haven’t done that in the past year.

So what is the point I’m trying to make? Paia is slow and cumbersome. The turnaround time for receiving an acknowledgement of a request is long. The turnaround time for receiving the information is, mostly, never. Imagine what will happen if the secrecy Bill is passed in its current form – the “new” deadline for the Bill is May 17.

The M&G‘s amaBhungane investigators have heard me on the other end of the telephone, pretending to be patient and polite, and have been quite sympathetic. They have also heard me lose my temper, after I’ve put the phone down, and curse about the obstreperous nature of the other side or of having quit the smoking habit maybe a bit prematurely.

These requests for information are not just about exercising our constitutional rights to information. Investigations need information, full stop. Journalists cannot do their jobs without authentic information, as in documentation, be these from deeds offices, court records, or local government or private sector vaults.

I leave to take up a research position at Wits Journalism School on the state of the media in South Africa. I will also be involved in putting the finishing touches to my book, The Fight for Democracy: The ANC and media in South Africa. It is published by Wits University Press and will be out later this year. I say goodbye to my advocacy co-ordinator job on April 30 with mixed feelings. After all, there were a few great aspects: I was back at the M&G where I started my career as a journalist more than two decades ago (I love this paper, it definitely showcases the best journalism, especially investigations and analyses, in the country); I enjoyed writing comment pieces on the secrecy Bill; and finally, my engagement in media freedom and access to information activism was great.

As for Paia and the information officer performance, say no more. Maybe except for just one word: Eish.

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    • Dave Harris

      Well, cry me a river!
      The PAIA process may be bureaucratic and slow at times, but not unlike every other democracies across the world. After our liberation, our knee-jerk reaction to the non-existent transparency during the apartheid regime, was to be reckless in our thirst for transparency. These opportunities have been seized by a few in our media that who have repeatedly abused our transparency to engage in partisan politics, character assassinations, fear mongering etc., but more importantly, we now place our entire democracy at risk by a few “bloody agents” currently operating with impunity. Numerous incidences in the past few years have shown how toothless our media self-regulation has proven to be and one can only imagine how easy it would be for subversive forces to endanger national security.

    • Neuren Pietersen

      You have described most experiences with most Govt. dept.s.

    • MLH

      This could help the next incumbent: I usually phone a lower management person in the department (usually the one I most expect to know the answers I need) and ask whether he/she is the right person and if not, who is, his/her contact details and the name and contact details of the spokeperson.
      If I need to do this again with the right person, I do.
      Obviously, the relevant lower management person may not reveal any information, but is so relieved I am not putting him/her in a difficult situation, that all the beans I actually ask for, are generally spilled with alacrity.
      From there, I e-mail the spokesperson, giving him/her the details of the person who can answer the question(s) and the time he/she has said it will take. He/she is usually so delighted that I don’t expect him/her to know the answer(s) (because he/she actualy knows bugger all, let alone who would know the answers) he/she forwards my message to the person concerned who has been forewarned by my initial phone call and has thus thought about which meeting minutes/point of law/point of anything will have the answers.
      It usually takes that person no time to produce the answers requested and he/she returns them with a flourish, firmly considering the merit award he/she expects for diligence.
      Once the spokesperson receives the e-mail (actually two, because mine remains underneath the one with the answer), he/she hits forward with another flourish and takes two weeks off for having been so amazingly efficient.

    • Bovril24

      Well, good luck Glenda, sorry you had to go but I am sure anyone who has ever tried to deal with any SA Govt. department will understand.

      Dave (HMV) Harris: you may be right that government processes are can be tiresomely bureaucratic in other countries, but I doubt whether you or the ANC have bothered to compare just how bad SA is – or indeed care. The difference lies in the attitudes and , competence of the people running the systems. In SA we have, for the most part, disinterested simpletons.

    • The Creator

      The big problem with the government in the post-1994 period was that it evolved excellent policies, like PAIA, but then didn’t implement them effectively.

      Fortunately, the Zuma administration seems likely to resolve this discrepancy by eliminating the excellent policies.

    • Nobby

      Dave, you are a such a chop… I mean really, lets implement laws preventing information from EVER having to be released on ANY government activity! Yeess! That is what you would prefer maybe? It’s quite alright for ANY tender to be conducted in secret! It’s fine for journalists to be arrested and detained without trial for being nosy! Lets do what we like and when we like because National Security is being compromised and political agendas are clearly what Journalists are all about…

      Yay, Old South Africa we welcome you back!

    • Gramsci

      Harris, I suggest you read Kate Allen’s book on the POIB. There you’ll see quite clearly that SA is a weak state. It cannot even implement its own democratic statutes, but remains subject to a kind of Stalinist “Third Force” within most (if not all) government departments.
      Basically we have two levels of “government”. The official level is the public relations level. It presents itself as democratic, freedom-loving, a result of liberation, “of the people, for the people, blah blah blah” and so on. That’s the overt post-boy SA
      The unofficial level is the Stalinist ideological one where real government happens. It operates covertly and bureaucratically by subverting and frustrating the principles of a democratic South Africa imagined in the Constitution (frankly South Africans do not even deserve that document — most are ideologically slaves, including yourself).
      With that subversion comes another practice: CORRUPTION. This is where politically-connected persons CAN use the system for their own self-enrichment. And because a weak state means that that they CAN use the treasury to their own ends, their own ethically-weak personalities mean that thy DO serve their own ends.
      We’ll rue the day that people like Glenda Daniels give up the good fight to make democracy a living reality, instead of a dead letter in a document that, frankly, the ANC hates with a vengeance.
      In another 10 years or so you’ll (and we all) will see the consequences of what you promote,…