The refusal by the South African Reserve Bank to provide documents requested by an archive organisation was unfortunate and was reminiscent of what happened during the time of apartheid.

This is the submission made by the South African History Archive (SAHA) in the High Court in Johannesburg as it seeks to compel the Bank to release records of suspected apartheid-era financial crimes.

SAHA brought an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) in 2015.

It requested access to records of any evidence obtained by the bank as part of its investigations into any contravention of the law in respect of fraud‚ gold smuggling or smuggling of other precious metals conducted into the affairs of eight individuals.

These include Vito Palazzolo‚ a former Mafia boss who is serving time in an Italian prison. In the 1980s‚ he was linked to the "Bank of Bisho" in the former Ciskei‚ which was used to launder money for South African-Israeli weapons programmes.

Although the Bank located documentation in relation to three of the eight individuals‚ it refused the PAIA request. One of the reasons for the refusal was that the scope of the PAIA request made by SAHA was described as unreasonably vague.

Arguing before the High Court on Friday‚ SAHA counsel Geoff Budlender SC said the Constitution provided that everyone had the right of access to any information held by the state, but in this case‚ that did not happen.

"First‚ [the Bank] said SAHA was trying to intimidate it. There was then a lengthy delay. The Bank then refused to provide any scrap of documentation to SAHA‚" Budlender said, who contends that in refusing SAHA’s request‚ the Bank had misunderstood it.

The Bank said none of the documents it had on three individuals constituted evidence they were involved in fraud or smuggling. "What we requested were records of evidence obtained by the Bank as part of its investigation‚" Budlender explained.

He said that after the Bank claimed it was being intimidated‚ it then refused to disclose anything and claimed it was excluded from the requirement to provide information in terms of Section 33 of the South African Reserve Bank Act. This section provides that no officer of the Bank shall disclose to any person any information relating to the affairs of the Bank acquired in the performance of their duties.

Budlender said the Bank’s objection was an objection in principle to disclosing any document that was under its control and that this was inconsistent with PAIA.

The hearing continues.

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