Access to Sensitive Archival Records

In terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Act No. 2 of 2000, as amended) (PAIA) the accounting officer of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (the Director-General) is also the Information Officer. The Information Officer appointed two Deputy Information officers (DIO's), one to deal with access to the collections in the National Archives Records Service  of South Africa (NARSSA) and one to deal with other requests relating to the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture as a whole (more on powers and duties of the DIO).

The establishment of the Sensitive Records Section within the National Archives Repository flowed out of requirements as set up in PAIA. Previously all requests for access to records which fell within the closed period in terms of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act (Act No. 43 of 1996, as amended) were dealt with as an added responsibility by the Head of the Reading Room and the Head of the Repository.

The PAIA Act higlighted the need for a dedicated section dealing with requests for records defined as sensitive in terms of that Act. The section was created with 3 staff members and their duties, over and above dealing with PAIA requests, include co-ordinating the declassification of classified records housed at the repossitory.

Its mission is to collect, preserve, maintain and arrange sensitive Public Records and to provide access to the information in the custody of the National Archives Repository in terms of various legislation (more on legislation and access).
Over and above the records in its holdings over which the NARSSA has custody and ownership it also has custody of certain records where the ownership still remains with the creating organ of state. A case in point is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archives (TRC) (more on the TRC and access).
The NARSSA deals with requests for access to sensitive archival records in terms of the PAIA Act and requires that a PAIA Request Form is completed and returned to the NARSSA for processing.
It should be remembered that in terms of  the PAIA Act the NARSSA is in the unique position that it is the custodian of records that it has not created. This causes the following challenges:
  • Records created and classified by another organ of state has to be declassified by that organ (in terms of Minimum Information Security Standards) before it can be released and,
  • Although the NARSSA has physical control of the records it is not privy to the general policies of the creating organ of state. In order to provide consistent and logical replies to requesters it is necessary to consult with all the role players before any decisions on access can be made.
The result in both cases is sometimes a delay in dealing with requests.