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How to bust open secrets with South Africa’s wonderful access to information laws

So, this morning Dr Mafu Rakometsi, the CEO of the Umalusi Council, stood up at a press conference in Pretoria to reveal some answers to some pressing questions about the 2010 matric results and how the results in various subjects were changed.

For myself and team mates in the Media24 Investigations team and colleagues at the Sunday titles, Rapport and City Press, this marked the end of a fascinating chapter in which we had brought the power of South Africa’s access to information laws to bear on this body.

Dr Rakometsi told everyone gathered there that the exam quality watchdog had taken this unprecedented step because of the intense interest in the “standardisation” process and after extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders and other interested parties.

But the truth behind this decison is rather more textured, as I will explain. The story behind it, I believe, holds an important lesson for South African journalists and, in fact, for any citizen wanting to ensure that those in authority do not withold from us information to which we are entitled.

Yesterday’s revelation was not some amazing conversion to democractic transparency by Umalusi. Far from it.

A little over a month ago, the chairman of Umalusi Professor Sizwe Mabizela dismissed criticism and concern over the surprisingly good matric results of 2010 and said Umalusi would not release details of the dozens of matric exam subject marks which it had adjusted or an explanation of why it had done so.

These details were of intense public interest since the matric results had shown an almost unbelievable improvement on the previous year’s despite an extended school holiday due to the soccer World Cup and a massive civil service strike which massively disrupted teaching. The results were treated with scepticism by leading educationalists and other experts, but Prof Mabizela would brook no challenge.

Back in January, Mabizela told MPs in Parliament that standardisation was “highly complex” and “very technical”. The information was so “sensitive” that it could be misinterpreted, he insisted.

The message was clear: Umalusi was the authority, busting at the seams with experts and why should they explain themsleves to anyone – let alone us poor mushrooms whose children are subjected to the State education system?

This arrogant refusal so enraged me that I called up Media24 Investigations team member Gcina Ntsaluba, whom I brought onto the team to primarily focus on Promotion of Access to Information Act applications.

Within days the two of us had drafted an access to information application to Umalusi in which we demanded copies of every record relating to this decision and which would show how the mark adjustment decisions were made, which subjects were changed and by how much. I think it cost Gcina R35 to file the application.

A week or so later our colleagues in Rapport and City Press climbed into the fray with attorneys threating litigation if the information was not released and throwing the powerful weight of their respected titles behind the access to information move.

We were confident of our public interest justifications in demanding access to this information (not that one has to explain your motivations to a public body under access to information law, by the way) and were prepared to fight in court to get this information. We fully expected Umalusi to deny us access.

Well, imagine our surprise when, on the 30 day deadline of our PAIA application, Umalusi replied to say that they would acede to our request and open up these records (They claimed that there had subsequently been three other applications but I cannot ascertain who else filed. If you are one of them – excellent!).

Well, I was stunned that they agreed to release the information and, I speak under correction, but I think this access to information success may be one of the most significant that has never gone to court.

Of course, Umalusi had dreamed up a way to get their own back on us.

They handed us the documents at 9am this morning just before a press conference open to all. They also timed the release for Budget Day, no doubt hoping that this news would overshadow their own return to the spotlight.

At the presser the grandiloquent Prof Mabizela spent hours lecturing my colleagues on the finer points of statistics and ogive curves and the like, berating the press and experts who dared to question the judgement of the esteemed experts of Umalusi.

Well, all I can say to the Professor is that I may not be a statistician nor an educationalist, but I am also not stupid. Like many citizens I am afronted by experts who treat us as if we are thick. I am capable of examining information and making up my own mind.

Now myself and my colleagues – and any other interested citizen for that matter – have access to a vast quantity of pages of primary information so that we can form our own view on whether the matric results were fiddled with or if the changes were fair.

I have already spotted a couple of things that I think are worth some more questions, and you can be sure that we will be asking them. These things I have spotted appear to contradict the elaborate explanations given at today’s press conference, so let’s see where it all goes. After all, what is it they say? Something about lies, damned lies and statistics…

But the lesson here is that with R35, a simple form and a bit of tenacity you can unlock the doors to “secrets” which have not been revealed, as in this case, since 1918.

For those that are interested this is how we phrased our request for records (it sounds a bit ridiculous, but you have to be very specific about the records you want. Remember that you are always asking for a record and not just information).

“All records which show which subjects in the 2010 matric examination quality assurance process conducted by Umalusi were adjusted either upwards or downwards;
1. For the records referred to in 1, above, what percentage adjustments were made in marks of each subject
2. All records which show which subjects in the 2010 matric examinations whose raw marks were accepted by Umalusi in the examination quality assurance process;
3. All records which document the raw marks for each subject which were accepted by Umalusi in the 2010 matric examination quality assurance process.
4. All records which document guidelines and instructions to Umalusi representatives in determining when and how to implement adjustments to a mark in a subject”

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