By Valencia Talane

A transparent system of government that encourages access to information for its citizens as well as freedom of expression, while protecting those who question its decisions and motives, may be an unrealistic concept for many. For the team of activists at the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), however, it is the proverbial golden pot at the end of the rainbow – one they aim to reach regardless of the obstacles they may face.

Gabriella Razzano is the ODAC's head of legal research and is the second profile in our series celebrating women working in the anti-corruption space. She made the cut as one of the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans 2013 and told Corruption Watch that besides this accolade being something great to gloat about on Facebook, it made her realise the importance of having other people validate her work.

What does ODAC do?

ODAC is officially a law centre. We work in promoting access to information, transparency and freedom of expression, and seek ways to help protect whistle-blowers. We are also starting to explore the advancement of transparency through technology and the promotion of open data.

We work in South Africa and the region in the advancement of laws, policies and practices, which can give full affect to fundamental human rights.

What is your role at ODAC?

I am the head of legal research. This means I do a lot of research in the access to information environment, but also in exploring new ways to advance our organisation's goals and ambitions. I manage a lot of our open data and technology work, represent us in international and national forums, and write a lot of reports, all while abusing our coffee supply.

When did you join the organisation and what inspired you to do so?

I joined the organisation in September 2011. After working at the Constitutional Court, and engaging in such incredible and inspiring human rights work there, there was just no way I could move to working in a commercial environment. I wanted to be excited about waking up on a Monday morning – and I believe that's only possible for me if I am contributing to the betterment of justice for all people, rather than a select wealthy few.

I took a job with a small NGO doing some work on the Promotion of Access to Information Act – but, given my legal background, it was a bit too "small" a job in the sense that there wasn't much scope in the work. Transparency is an absolutely fundamental component of the democratic state – but is so broadly cross-cutting that to focus on just one legal aspect of it seemed counter intuitive. I had come across ODAC in my work and just loved the people who worked here. They were such vibrant and energetic people, passionate about the same things I was. It was a perfect fit for me.

What has been the highlight of your work at ODAC?

There have been a few – broadly, I am given a lot of free reign to explore issues of transparency and technology which I have found incredible exciting (and fun!). I have had the opportunity of leading great community meetings; I often spend my days with my head buried in reports and it's really good to sometimes get out there and remember why what you are doing has any relevance…

I have also addressed two Unesco meetings (In Tunisia in 2012 and in Paris this year), which is, of course, a great honour. It's been a source of great pride to address Parliament on several bills over the past few years in person – and see some of our suggestions directly incorporated into the latest Protected Disclosures Act Amendment Bill that will provide far greater protection to whistle-blowers in a real and fundamental way.

What do you find most fulfilling about the work that you do?

I do a lot of speaking engagements, at government and civil society forums alike. And I must admit, I love being an evangelist for openness. There is nothing as fundamental to our existence as being equal actors in our own governance.

Also, working within the technology space means I get to engage with innovation – creative and profound new ways are being explored to protect whistle-blowers and journalists, and to improve the lives of all citizens. That innovation is really inspiring when you have been working on the slow (but powerful) passage of laws. Being able to influence government policy is pretty amazing, though.

You were featured in the M&G's 200 Young South Africans. How did that feel?

I made the Mail & Guardian list in 2013, and it was humbling. And obviously great for Facebook gloating. It is great to have the importance of your work validated, but it is just a bonus on top of a bonus. I love what I do.

What will you explore next, after ODAC?

I like being involved in a variety of projects; I find it much more stimulating than being too singularly focused. So I think I would ideally like to be consulting on a variety of human rights work. I would like to start focusing on international human rights law perspectives and I have already begun to explore regional human rights issues more strongly this year, than national ones. I also have a strange desire to do an MBA, though professionally I understand a PhD would be wiser.

As a legal researcher, you probably get asked a lot about your interactions with the government. Would you say South Africa has a generally corrupt government?

I think there is an embedded culture of corruption. And it results from many, many factors – not least of all being that there is very limited access to wealth across the board. I think the public service is now viewed as an opportunity to access private wealth, rather than serve the public. And I think that large-scale corruption is so endemic in our procurement processes, that the small-scale corruption of R500 here and there seems inconsequential to the people who do it.

I really do believe there are a lot of people within the system who are trying so hard to change this culture – but the structures they are working within are almost too damaged, and designed to hold secrets. It is why we really need to be focusing on real ways to empower and protect whistle-blowers.

If you were not in civil society, what would you be doing?

Running a yoga studio and working as a graphic designer specialising in user interfaces would be the dream. The reality? I would probably be working in a private firm doing divorce litigation; or being a lecturer.

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Excerpt
Transparency is fundamental to a democratic state – but truth is often lost in murky systems and fear of reprisal. Open Democracy Advice Centre is directly involved in the Protected Disclosures Act Amendment Bill that will provide greater protection to whistle-blowers in a real and fundamental way.