The South African government is refusing to comply with a court order to hand over a confidential report on the 2002 Zimbabwean elections. A South African newspaper, Mail & Guardian, is fighting for its release.
DW: What could this report contain?
Nic Dawes: Really what the report investigates is what were the constitutional and legal circumstances surrounding that 2002 election. It was a violent election, it was an election many people believed was stolen effectively by Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF and these were two eminent judges sent by Thabo Mbeki to look into whether the constitution and legal dimensions of the election meant it could be free and fair.
Why is the South African government reluctant to release the contents of this report?
Well one can speculate about the real reasons. The official reason that they give is that it would compromise the confidential communications between two states.
But, of course, judges are not part of the state and cannot be construed as ambassadors or as government officials and indeed the judge who has now seen the report says that it would do no such thing. So we have to speculate about other motives. They also say that it would make their mediation role in the Zimbabwean Global Political Agreement more difficult, but I really think the fundamental reason is that they fear it would be embarrassing to South Africa. Thabo Mbeki, after all, effectively endorsed that election and it would look bad if he did so after receiving a report which said that it was seriously flawed. Also they want to be able to maintain their role in the upcoming elections and they would prefer this report not to come out before the next round of elections in Zimbabwe which will happen in the southern African spring later this year.
The elections were held in Zimbabwe. Why was it that South Africa came up with a report on the polls?
Well, South Africa, of course, has an important role regionally and plays an important role in the SADC structures, that is the regional political structures which oversee that election and South Africa was also called upon many times to possibly make some kind of intervention and to manage the process in one way or another towards a better outcome. So this report would have given a lot of insight, I think, to South African policy makers into the precise nature of that poll.
And just how important is it for the Mail & Guardian to gain access to this report and make it public?
It is very important to us and for more than one reason. Of course we think it is important to understand the history of South Africa's decision-making in relation to those and indeed to subsequent Zimbabwean elections. We think it is important to learn lessons for the future Zimbabwean election and for Zimbabweans to be able to reflect on the views of these two eminent judges. But also we think it is very important that South Africa's freedom of information laws and freedom of information dispensation are strengthened. We have reasonably good laws in that regard, but they aren't very often honored and we are trying to make sure in this case that the government is compelled to live up to the standards that it itself has created.
And what does the refusal by the government to release this report say about its relationship with the press?
Well I think it shows that they really have some contempt for these laws. This report has been through four courts in total and yes they are within their legal rights to appeal once more but they are effectively spending taxpayers' money without any let or hindrance continually to delay this outcome. I think it shows that they fundamentally lack respect for the freedom of information provisions in our constitution and indeed the role of the press in helping to uphold and honor those.
And will you continue to push and ask for this report to be released?
Absolutely, I'm completely confident that in the final analysis they will be compelled to hand it over. The judge who has seen the report says that it may well disclose evidence of serious illegality and on that basis alone I think that a subsequent court is going to find it very, very hard to continue to keep it secret.
Nic Dawes is the editor-in-chief of the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian.
Interview: Chrispin Mwakideu