Access to information organisations didn’t have a very celebratory Human Rights Day. Two days earlier, on March 19, Judge Elias Matojane ruled against the SA History Archive (Saha), its attorneys from Lawyers for Human Rights, and Open Secrets in a case against the SA Reserve Bank.

The trust had brought an action against the central bank as it refused to provide financial information on unsavoury apartheid-era crooks, in particular Brigadier Johann Blaauw, Robert Oliver Hill and Vito Palazzolo. They are all considered to be substantial contributors to the economic crimes of apartheid.

Many of these requests were originally made to collect information for the book Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, written by Open Secrets head Hennie van Vuuren.

Though the Bank is not a law enforcement agency it can investigate economic crimes relevant to its mandate of maintaining the currency, such as fraud or gold smuggling.

Matojane argued in his ruling that Saha’s request, made under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, was too broad because it asked for "any evidence of substantial contraventions".

This is despite Saha asking for evidence of manipulation of the old dual currency — with a financial rand and commercial rand at different rates — as well as forex fraud and the once-popular activity of forging Eskom bonds.

The investigation into Hill, allegedly a notorious bond forger, consisted of 43 boxes.

The central bank argues that processing the request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of a public body.

Some of the information Saha wants to pin down is undoubtedly of historical interest, though much of it is 40 years old. It may include, for example, evidence that Blaauw might have been present when the SA cabinet agreed to provide Israel with 500t of yellowcake uranium in exchange for 30g of the radioactive substance tritium.

Van Vuuren says the Bank has raised some absurd arguments, such as the breach of its third-party confidentiality and even that such disclosures would materially jeopardise the economic interests or financial welfare of the country.

He argues that the release of apartheid-era records that illuminate the economic crimes of the past will help shed light on how corruption has developed over the years. "It is directly in the public interest," he says.

Surprisingly, Saha was instructed to pay costs, quite a burden on a nonprofit organisation. It has been practice for several years that losing litigants do not pay costs in constitutional cases.

Spokesman Jabulani Sikhakhane says the Bank does not comment on court cases.

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