African LIIs and Laws.Africa are building the largest free and open access repository of African gazettes
14 January 2020, by Mariya Badeva-Bright
Legal certainty demands that public information is accessible, authoritative and available for verification. The Government Gazette is the official government publication for disseminating legislation, rules and other legal information. In African countries, the Gazette is often very difficult to find, and is generally only available in paper format and at a price. We created Gazettes.Africa to make this crucial source of government information freely available on the Internet.
The Government Gazette, sometimes also referred to as the Official Gazette or Official Journal, is a periodical publication - print or digital - which authoritatively carries public and legal notices. The Gazette serves an important communication and record-keeping function, establishing certainty on promulgated legislation, rules, order or any document within the governmental public order that needs to be public. The Interpretation Act of South Africa, for example, makes the Gazette the default outlet of any government (national, provincial or municipal) information. Additionally, a myriad of laws require private entities to publish notices in a public way through the gazette - liquor licenses, company information, change of name, etc. It is only in exceptional circumstances that the President may proclaim a different method of publication of public information. This is the situation, with slight variations, in most countries around the world. Gazettes are a vital component of legal certainty and the rule of law. They are indispensable sources of information for the legal and justice sectors in any country. But this most basic and most public of all documents is surprisingly difficult to obtain in many African countries.
Gazettes.Africa aims to be the ultimate repository of freely available digital gazettes from Africa. Backed by a “Gazette Machine”, which automates the recognition and storing of metadata, and aided by brilliant library students from the University of Cape Town, we have added over 21,000 gazettes in the past 3 months alone.
Visiting Gazettes.Africa today, you are able to browse chronologically through the gazettes of:
Angola (2015 - 2019)
Botswana (1997-1999; 2018)
eSwatini (1976 to date)
Kenya (1906 to date)
Mauritius (2017 - 2019)
Namibia (1990 to date)
Nigeria (1957 - 2018)
Rwanda (2004 - to date)
Tanzania (2010 to date)
Uganda (2000 to date)
Zambia (2015 to date)
Zimbabwe (1980 to date)
Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone and South Africa are currently in preparation - most are digitized, but requiring further processing. The website offers a clean, simple search interface that allows users to freely search across jurisdictions, and filter results by country and gazette date.
This is just the beginning. We are aware that the collections have gaps. We have already scanned materials to fill some of these gaps, or have sourced the paper gazettes to digitize and upload. Some countries are simply difficult to service. We are planning a separate - on the ground - intervention in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to that, we are appealing to all libraries - in Africa and internationally - to help us source, digitize and open access the public legal history of African countries. When we set off on this journey, we were surprised to discover that African gazettes are more readily available in the libraries of former colonial masters or in well-stocked libraries oceans away, but always remaining expensive and out of reach for African researchers and citizens. This prompted us to resolve to donate a copy of each digital collection to government and academic libraries in their respective countries.
Contributing to the collection
What about new gazettes? The AfricanLII network of LIIs is rising to the challenge. We are already receiving updates every Friday from our correspondents in a number of African countries. We are finalizing formal collaborations with two African countries’ Government Printers to capacitate them to publish the gazettes online freely and on the day of publication. Informed citizens, businesses and investors contribute more to the coffers of government than the small revenue generated from selling the gazette. International best practices reveal that free digital versions of the gazettes are both economically sustainable, and indeed more effective at communicating government and public information. What was previously the domain of cost recovery is turning into the domain of digital opportunity. African governments and their Printers are beginning to take note.
A myriad of future uses
A year ago Greg Kempe and I started Laws.Africa (https://www.laws.africa/) to create the first open-access digital and machine-readable legislation commons for Africa. Laws.Africa is important in so many ways (read about it here), but chief amongst those is the ambition to solve a perennial problem plaguing many African countries - producing consolidations of laws efficiently and authoritatively. In just under 12 months we have managed to process close to 5000 pieces of legislation from four African countries, and enroll two governments on the platform. The potential for growth is immense and the benefits are immediately obvious. Each piece of legislation, government notice, by-law, or amendment thereof, is backed up by the digital copy of the official gazette from Gazettes.Africa. Unlike any other legislation system on the continent, within seconds you can verify that the legislation you are reading is exactly as promulgated in the gazette. Gazettes.Africa is a vital component of the larger free access to law project in Africa.
In 2020 we plan to experiment with new premium services on top of the freely available content. These services will aim to deliver relevant gazettes and other related legal information to users’ mailboxes.
Using our existing APIs, we can extend machine-readable access to your legal software and applications, your internal knowledge management systems, or your website. We welcome your feedback on what would be the most useful ways to serving this gazette and legislative information to you and your organization.
Advocacy for free gazettes
The task ahead is not easy. As mentioned earlier, obtaining gazettes from African countries, especially digitally, is not as easy as one might expect. The situation needs to change. We will continue to advocate for and work with Printers to make current gazettes more readily available to the public. We appeal to private libraries and individuals to send us their digital gazettes. We will publicly acknowledge your contributions to the Gazettes.Africa commons. If you only have print gazettes, donate them to the commons, we will digitize and upload them too.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together
We thank our comrades at all LIIs in Africa, OpenUp, as well as the librarians at the Johannesburg Bar Library, the University of Cape Town Government Publications section of the Library, Werksmans Attorneys, Webber Wentzel and LLMC (United States) for their in-kind donations to the commons.
*This blog post first appeared in the Organization of South African Law Librarians newsletter in November 2019 and is republished here with a few updates.