Alison Tilley. Picture: SUPPLIED
Alison Tilley. Picture: SUPPLIED

It was one of many iconic moments of the #FeesMustFall student actions that took place in 2015 and 2016, captured in an image of a young black woman being dragged towards a police van. A day later she would tweet the image herself, captioning it: “this old white lady saved my life”, drawing attention to a figure in the picture standing between her and the police van. “That’s no old white lady”, I replied, “that’s Alison Tilley!”

What the young student had experienced that day was a refusal to be indifferent to other people’s predicaments, a trait that has defined the life and career of the parliamentary justice committee’s nominee for appointment by parliament as a member of the information regulator, SA’s regulatory authority on access to information and data protection rights.

The information regulator is a relatively new institution — its original cohort of members were appointed less than three years ago. Its website defines its role as “[to] promote the protection of personal information processed by public and private bodies by, among others, introducing certain conditions for the lawful processing of personal information so as to establish minimum requirements for the processing of such information.”

It is also tasked with monitoring compliance with, and enforcement of, the Promotion of Access to Information Act and the Protection of Personal Information Act.

It is clear that the information regulator ought to be a pivot around which the entire information rights regulatory framework in SA revolves. Given the SA context the regulator needs to be driven by individuals with a deep appreciation of the nexus between information rights policy and socioeconomic justice.

An institution devoted to fighting injustice and indifference is what our democracy needs now

Appointees need to not only have professional interest but show a track record of demonstrable devotion to the work of the regulator. Agencies critical to consolidation of our democratic gains, such as the information regulator, should not be used for career advancement by corporate riders representing nothing more than personal or corporate interests, but must be unapologetically geared towards the advancement of socioeconomic justice.

Tilley is a senior attorney and seasoned campaigner for socioeconomic justice generally, and for realisation of socioeconomic rights through the usage of information rights as an enabler for socioeconomic justice more specifically. She has worked for such social justice non-profit organisations such as the Black Sash Trust, where she served as head of advocacy, driving campaigns on child-support grants, the basic income grant and victim empowerment legislation.

She has also worked at the Open Democracy Advice Centre, where she served as its executive director, launching campaigns on access to information, protection of whistle-blowers and data protection legislation.

Such expertise and background is what is needed to steer the information regulator towards that which is of concern to the most vulnerable people in society. It is also this unequalled professional background that will enable Tilley to assist the information regulator and other state agencies in mediating imbalances of power that arise from information asymmetries — where those that are information rich have the means to access information about institutions and individuals and exploit it for personal, corporate, political or financial benefit, and those that are information-poor are denied economic opportunity  and are commoditised through unregulated usage of their personal data.

There are numerous examples in the recent past where poor people have been placed at financial disadvantage due to unscrupulous use of personal data by corporate groups that access such data via service delivery agreements they have with the government, for example unauthorised sale of financial services to grant recipients and unauthorised deductions from grant payments.

It is such harmful practices that an institution such as the information regulator should be directing its efforts towards, and that require that members should, as US public intellectual Cornel West puts it, be people who are not well-adjusted to injustice or well-adapted to indifference.

An institution devoted to fighting injustice and indifference is what our democracy needs now, and a career and life that has been entirely about using the law to fight injustice and indifference is what Tilley brings to the information regulator. Parliament could not have chosen a better candidate.    

• Dimba is director of Integrity 4.0 and former co-chair of the global steering committee of the Open Government Partnership.

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