South Africa

What’s the urgency? Revival of decade-old proposal on human rights bodies raises questions

By Rebecca Davis 17 May 2017

Exactly a decade ago, a committee led by the late Kader Asmal suggested to Parliament that consideration should be given to collapsing a number of Chapter 9 institutions – including the Commission for Gender Equality and the SA Human Rights Commission – into one single human rights body. This week, the proposal has suddenly been resurrected – and the public has been given exactly seven days to give input into a highly complex topic. Where’s the fire? By REBECCA DAVIS.

It has been such a long time since the release of the so-called Asmal Report that two of the 10-member committee which produced it are now dead – Kader Asmal himself, and the DA’s Dene Smuts. Of the rest, not one is still an MP.

All of them might be taken aback to learn that their work has suddenly become the flavour of the month once more in Parliament.

A notification sent out this week invites the public to make submissions to Parliament on one of the 10-year-old recommendations of Asmal’s committee: that five completely separate institutions be collapsed into a single human rights body.

The institutions affected would be the National Youth Development Agency, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, the Commission for Gender Equality, the Pan South African Language Board, and the South African Human Rights Commission.

The kicker: members of the public have what amounts to just seven working days to have their say.

This time frame has caused some consternation – and confusion – among interested parties. The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) has written to Parliament to request an extension on the call for written submissions until mid-June.

In a letter signed by CASAC’s campaigns officer Motlatsi Komote, the NGO says that the current time frame “undermines the notion of effective public participation” and that “adequate time” is necessary to consider the “lengthy” 2007 report.

The report in question is just over 280 pages long, and was compiled by what was formally known as the Ad Hoc Committee on the Review of Chapter 9 and Associated Institutions. It is explained in the report’s introduction that it came about because “10 years into the new democracy, the government thought it was opportune to assess the extent to which society had been transformed and human rights entrenched through the operation of these institutions”.

After carrying out its investigation, the committee found that part of the problem was that there were too many human rights-related bodies operating separately. This “multiplicity”, it found, resulted in fragmentation and “an uneven spread of available resources and capacities, with implications for effectiveness and efficiency”.

To deal with this splintering problem, the committee proposed collapsing five bodies into one and establishing “an umbrella human rights body”, to be called the South African Commission on Human Rights and Equality.

Such a process would “neither be easy nor speedy”, the committee warned – but instructed that “it should be finalised within a reasonable time”.

That, evidently, has not happened.

The notification sent out this week by the parliamentary unit known as the Office on Institutions Supporting Democracy announces that the main advantages to the establishment of a single umbrella body would be “the avoidance of duplication of effort”; “the administrative efficiency and effective use of resources’; and “greater accessibility and co-ordinated approach to public awareness of the Bill of Rights”.

As gender researcher Lisa Vetten points out, however, these advantages were identified on the basis of the state of the relevant institutions 10 years ago. Since then, things have changed.

For instance, the CGE [Commission for Gender Equality] 10 years ago was the weakest it’s ever been,” she says. “Now it’s in a much better space. It would be necessary to do a proper analysis [of the relevant institutions] now. This is all based on old data.”

Even at the time of the original report’s release, Vetten says, there was concern as to the wisdom of the scheme.

There is some merit to sharing resources and allocations, because it might cut costs – but [these bodies] weren’t set up to cut costs,” she says.

The idea that the five bodies would now share one large budget is also a cause for concern. The existing bodies command budgets which are small-fry in the context of government departments – but with the budgets combined, the picture begins to look a little different. The South African Human Rights Commission has an annual government allocation of over R120-million; the Commission for Gender Equality, just less than R70-million.

The National Youth Development Agency, meanwhile – a body which the Democratic Alliance has repeatedly suggested be scrapped altogether due to non-performance – is allocated R145-million for 2016/17 for salaries alone.

Even allowing for reduced costs in certain logistical areas, a hypothetical umbrella human rights body would thus stand to control a sizeable budget annually. Questions are now being asked in civil society if control of this budget might have something to do with the seeming desire to ram the proposal through at speed. Parliament failed to respond to questions from the Daily Maverick on Wednesday.

Vetten says that the public participation time frame given is wholly inadequate, “because essentially you have to rethink legislation and the Constitution”. She adds: “Parliament is clearly not hearing what the courts are saying [in similar matters] about decision-making and rationality.”

In the recent Western Cape High Court ruling against the nuclear deal, the judge found that the government’s actions were unconstitutional and unlawful partly because it failed to carry out sufficient public participation.

If Parliament fails to extend the deadline for public submissions about the proposal to amalgamate human rights institutions, it is hard to imagine that a decision to pursue the project would withstand a legal challenge. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma delivers the keynote address at the national commemoration of Human Rights Day in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape, 21 March 2017.. (Photo: GCIS)