Seeking access to environmental information in South Africa : a critical review of the relevant legal framework and jurisprudence

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The deteriorating state of South Africa's natural environment has been linked to the exponential growth in anthropogenic pressures associated with urban life. In the wake of dire water shortages and the onslaught of climate change, reports have shown increased environmental degradation and evidence of decreasing water, soil and air quality. The state of the environment has therefore raised concerns as to the legal relationship governing communication, engagement and accountability between citizens, government authorities, and the private sector. Following the promulgation of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and the inclusion of the environmental right, environmental law significantly developed as a means to regulate activities affecting people and the environment. The National Environmental Management Act and the Promotion of Access to Information Act therefore, play a critical role in overseeing decision-making and accountability between stakeholders regarding activities that affect the environment. Citizens are usually the ones affected most by environmental degradation and therefore require proper public involvement in decision-making and environmental governance efforts. Public participation is vital to incorporating local knowledge and practices into formal government and private sector decision-making processes with an emphasis on the sharing and access of environmental information as well as the ability to hold wrongdoers accountable. Using academic legal literature, jurisprudence, governmental and organisational reports, the dissertation examines the theoretical notions of environmental governance, public participation and access to information. Following this, links are made between the theoretical notions and to accepted forms of environmental information, the means and outcomes of granting access followed by the important role of rights and laws in providing the procedures with which to allow citizens access to information held by public and private bodies. The dissertation therefore emphasises the value of legislation that offers wide access to information, in a user friendly and explanatory manner, to assist all members of society in accessing information. Access to information is a pivotal tool for holding government and private entities accountable for pollution and environmental degradation and allows citizens to enforce their right to a healthy environment. In doing so, the important oversight role of the courts in adjudicating on and balancing interests where environmental protection is concerned, is highlighted. In light of this, the dissertation assesses the key legal elements that make up any effective access to information regime and compares these key legal elements to those that make up the South African access to environmental information regime with a focus on the Promotion of Access to Information Act. These key elements include the scope and nature of information, limitations, access procedures, protection of whistle-blowers and appeal and review mechanisms. The efficacy and practical implementation of these key elements are critically reviewed alongside a consideration of how they have been interpreted by the courts. The dissertation thus provides a blended discussion and review of the state of access to environmental information in South Africa using relevant laws and cases to highlight various challenges, successes and guidance that has emerged and how it may aid future requesters.