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Protectors or Pretenders? - Government Human Rights Commissions in Africa, HRW Report 2001

South Africa



International Standards: The Paris Principles

Important Factors

Examining the Record in Africa

Innovative and Positive Contributions by Commissions

Regional Iniatives

The Role Of The International Community





Staffing and Appointment Procedures

    Like the other Chapter 9 bodies, the SAHRC is responsible to the National Assembly and not to the executive. Commissioners are elected by a majority of the members of the National Assembly and the president confirms the appointments, which may be on a full-time or part-time basis (provided that at least five members are full-time). The constitution provides that the recommendation process may provide for the involvement of civil society, though the Human Rights Commission Act does not specify that consultation is required. In practice, the appointment procedure has been an open and transparent process, with public interviews. The commissioners hold office for a fixed term of up to seven years, renewable once, and may only be removed from office on the grounds of misconduct, incapacity or incompetence, which must have been investigated by a committee of the National Assembly and supported by a majority vote of the members of the Assembly. The law also provides that commissioners and their staff must serve impartially and independently, and that no officer of the state may interfere with the work of the commission.

    As required by the constitution, the commissioners come from a wide range of backgrounds, and four are women, including the deputy chair. Barney Pityana, the chair of the commission since its founding, is a minister of religion with an anti-apartheid background who spent many years at the World Council of Churches in Geneva; he is also a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. Despite the ANC's large majority in the National Assembly, the commissioners are not predominantly ANC-aligned. Indeed, some have criticized the appointment procedure for paying more attention to the need to represent a range of racial and political groups than to expertise in human rights. "There's a lot of maneuvering between the different parties in the justice committee in parliament when these appointments get made," Venitia Govender, director of the nongovernmental Human Rights Committee, commented to Human Rights Watch. "Sometimes political considerations seem to be more important than the quality of the person appointed."221 There has been quite a high turnover among members of the commission, including at least one resignation prompted by frustrations at the way the commission was being managed. Gaps before outgoing commissioners are replaced have been quite long.

    The SAHRC is structured into two sections: the commission itself, which sets out policy, and a secretariat that implements policy. The chairperson is overall head and the chief executive officer is head of the secretariat. The full commission meets in plenary session every two months to review the work of the commission. The commission has divided itself into functional units, and every member has responsibilities for at least one of the nine provinces. The secretariat is divided into five departments: Legal Services; Advocacy; Research and Documentation; Media and Public Relations; Finance & Administration. Among staff, too, there have been a large number of resignations, especially during the first years of the commission's life-to some extent this can probably be blamed simply on the high mobility among the nongovernmental, governmental, and private sectors as new opportunities opened up in the years immediately following the 1994 elections. In addition to salaried staff, the SAHRC has made extensive use of interns, especially in the initial processing of complaints, providing useful human rights training to those engaged. The commission's head office is in Johannesburg; it has provincial offices in Cape Town (since 1997), Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pietersburg (all established in 1999).

    The commission has established six standing committees, under section 5 of the act, each of which has a commissioner as convener but includes experts from outside the commission. The Policy Committee advises the commission on policy and keeps abreast of developments at the U.N., OAU, and other national human rights institutions world-wide. The Government and Parliamentary Liaison Committee monitors legislation and the performance of all government departments, as well as parliament, on human rights. The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is concerned with the administration of justice, especially in the police service and prisons. The Nongovernmental and Community-based Organizations (NGO/CBO) and Statutory Bodies Liaison Committee maintains links with these structures and is charged to consult with them on emerging issues and possibilities of common action. The Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities monitors human rights practice in relation to people with disabilities, and seeks to promote reference to the bill of rights and international human rights instruments in the interpretation of the rights of the disabled. The Committee on the Rights of the Child advises on strategic planning for implementing the protection and promotion of the rights of the child, and has focused in particular on children in various forms of detention.

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