'Hostile' Reserve Bank withheld apartheid money records, court hears
Johannesburg – The Reserve Bank was hostile to requests for access to information related to investigations into money crimes committed during the apartheid-era, a court heard on Friday.
Legal counsel of the South African History Archives (SAHA) and the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) made representations to Judge KE Matojane at the South Gauteng High Court.
The matter has been coming along for more than three years and relates to a request made by SAHA to have access to records of suspected financial crimes committed during apartheid. SAHA sought evidence of “significant fraud” through the manipulation of the rand dual currency, foreign exchange and the forging of Eskom bonds, gold smuggling and smuggling of precious metals, the founding affidavit read.
SAHA co-director Toerien van Wyk who spoke to Fin24, explained that this information tells a story of what was happening in South Africa in the 1980s, which is in the public interest. SAHA was approached by the Open Secrets Project’s Hennie van Vuuren, who was conducting research for his book Apartheid guns and money. They requested information by means of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) from various institutions, including the auditor general.
“It started there, with Hennie saying there is more to the story of corruption in South Africa than corruption today. There is a story of historic corruption,” said van Wyk.
During the hearing SAHA’s legal counsel Geoff Budlender SC, said that the SARB’s reflex reactions to multiple requests for information was hostile. “It said that this was vexatious.” In a written response of refusal, the bank said that SAHA was attempting to intimidate its clients.
Budlender questioned why the bank felt SAHA was trying to intimidate it when it had simply exercised its constitutional right. “Ultimately, the bank refused every request for every record or any part of record. It refused to provide any scrap of paper, any scrap of document.” Nothing from the files could be disclosed, and the bank even refused to make available documents already in the public domain.
“I don’t want to cause offence but I have to say the response of the bank has been very unfortunate - not what one expects in a democratic era.” He added that the bank’s reflex response was one of secrecy and an attempt to avoid any disclosure.
Nic Maritz SC, who represented the Reserve Bank, said that the motive for accessing the information was not purely in the public interest but rather for a book that would be sold for commercial gain.
He also explained that the Reserve Bank did not misinterpret the request as the founding affidavit indicated SAHA wanted “evidence” that the SARB obtained through its investigations into these contraventions.
Maritz said that the SARB was well within its right to regard SAHA’s requests as “vexatious” because more than one request was made for the same matter.
The SARB’s letter of refusal was not hostile either, he argued, as it is “entirely appropriate and proper” for the Reserve Bank from the outset to enquire why SAHA would want access to the records. “It is not a hostile letter,” he emphasised.
Judgement has been reserved.
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