Tlakula sets the ground­work at new reg­u­la­tor

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The walls are still bare. There is a desk, ta­ble and chairs, but there are no doc­u­ments, files, sta­tionery or boxes any­where. But as soon as Pansy Tlakula, chair­per­son of the coun­try’s newly es­tab­lished in­for­ma­tion reg­u­la­tor (IR), walks into her of­fice, things start to hap­pen.

Along with her own lap­top, she brings the ideas, ex­pe­ri­ence and en­ergy needed to trans­form the new reg­u­la­tor into a func­tional en­tity that will en­sure com­pli­ance with the Pro­tec­tion of Per­sonal In­for­ma­tion (Popi) Act and the Pro­mo­tion of Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act.

Tlakula headed the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, but re­signed from her post in 2014 fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Armed with a law de­gree from Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand and a mas­ter’s from Har­vard Univer­sity in the US, Tlakula was ap­pointed as chair of the IR on De­cem­ber 1, as part of the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Popi Act.

The IR’s other mem­bers are ad­vo­cates Le­bo­gang St­room-Nzama and Collen Weapond – ap­pointed on a full-time ba­sis – and Pro­fes­sor Tana Pis­to­rius and Sizwe Snail ka Mtuze, ap­pointed on a part-time ba­sis.

Tlakula says she and her staff have been “squat­ting” in Pre­to­ria, on the 23rd floor of the build­ing oc­cu­pied by the depart­ment of jus­tice and con­sti­tu­tional de­vel­op­ment, while new of­fices are be­ing sought. De­spite this, they have al­ready been hard at work im­ple­ment­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tional struc­ture.

“Since De­cem­ber, we have been think­ing through how the in­sti­tu­tion should work and what it should look like. We are busy with reg­u­la­tions, as re­quired by the law.

“Hope­fully, these will be pub­lished in the Gov­ern­ment Gazette by next year.”

IR per­son­nel fore­see a struc­ture which will in­clude a le­gal and com­pli­ance unit, as well as a unit deal­ing with com­plaints, in­ves­ti­ga­tions and dis­pute res­o­lu­tions.

These re­quire qual­i­fied staff with ex­pe­ri­ence in in­ves­ti­ga­tion and lit­i­ga­tion work.

Tlakula wants all ap­point­ments to be con­cluded by De­cem­ber, af­ter which the reg­u­la­tor can ad­vise Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma to pro­mul­gate the rest of the leg­is­la­tion.

As soon as this is con­cluded, pub­lic and pri­vate bod­ies will have a grace pe­riod of one year to com­ply with the law.

“I un­der­stand [this grace pe­riod] as non­com­pli­ance will cost us dearly,” says Tlakula.

In ad­di­tion to in­stat­ing pos­si­ble prison sen­tences and fines of up to R10 mil­lion for non­com­pli­ance, in­di­vid­u­als can also in­sti­tute civil claims un­der Popi.

Tlakula says she is not afraid of build­ing some­thing from the ground up, hav­ing been part of the team tasked with estab­lish­ing the SA Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion af­ter 1994.

Tlakula has been in­volved with the African Union (AU) Com­mis­sion for 12 years. She is its spe­cial rap­por­teur on free­dom of ex­pres­sion and ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion in Africa and, last year, was ap­pointed chair of the AU’s African Com­mis­sion on Hu­man and Peo­ple’s Rights.

This post has en­tailed her analysing the me­dia laws and poli­cies of var­i­ous mem­ber states, and play­ing an im­por­tant role in en­sur­ing that coun­tries adopt laws pro­mot­ing ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion.

In the past four years, the num­ber of AU coun­tries that have adopted such laws has risen from five to 19.

Tlakula, who turns 60 this year, says once her term at the AU ends later this year, she will fo­cus solely on her work at the IR.

“The point of de­par­ture must be open­ness and trans­parency, which means that the free flow of in­for­ma­tion is where ev­ery­thing be­gins. Cur­rently, the pro­tec­tion of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion over­shad­ows the pro­mo­tion of ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. There has to be a bal­ance.”

She refers to cases in Africa where gov­ern­ments have cut in­ter­net ac­cess and blocked the use of so­cial me­dia in the name

What is the Pro­tec­tion of Per­sonal In­for­ma­tion Act?

This law pro­motes the pro­tec­tion of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion by pub­lic and pri­vate bod­ies.

What is the Pro­mo­tion of Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Act?

This law gives ef­fect to the con­sti­tu­tional right of ac­cess to any in­for­ma­tion held by the state and any in­for­ma­tion held by an­other per­son that is re­quired for the ex­er­cise or pro­tec­tion of any rights. of “na­tional se­cu­rity”. That can lead to abuse or cre­ate a so­ci­ety that is not trans­par­ent.

What will Tlakula do, as head of the IR, if a stranger phones her to sell her in­sur­ance or a new cell­phone con­tract?

“In that case I am an or­di­nary cit­i­zen, who asks them where they got my con­tact de­tails. I will refuse to speak to them un­til they tell me where they got my de­tails. Usu­ally, that makes them hang up fast.”

Re­gard­ing her leav­ing the IEC af­ter be­ing caught up in a ten­der con­tro­versy, she ad­mits it was hard. “I told my­self I had made a con­tri­bu­tion and per­haps it was time to move on. Many peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ated my con­tri­bu­tion.”

Tlakula, a mother of two daugh­ters, says when she re­tires, she would like to help young pro­fes­sional women to find the bal­ance be­tween work and lifestyle.

For now, though, she is ex­cited about her new post. “I am pas­sion­ate about free­dom of speech and ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion.”


WATCH­DOG Pansy Tlakula, chair­per­son of the coun­try’s newly es­tab­lished in­for­ma­tion reg­u­la­tor

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