May 25, 2020

Budgets cuts start to bite, Justice Committee told

The State Institutions Supporting Constitutional Democracy – also known as the Chapter 9 Institutions because they were established in terms of Chapter Nine of the Constitution ‑ have requested a meeting with the President to address their current budget cuts.

This was reported to the parliamentary hearing of the Justice and Correctional Services Committee on the Annual Performance Plan (APP) of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The Commission’s budget for 2018/19 has been cut by R4.8 million from R183 million to R178 million.

Its Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Peter Makaneta reported that after all expenses had been paid, the SAHRC had only R3.3 million to conduct its programmatic work during the 2018/19 financial year. This was a significant drop from the R8 million it had for core work in 2017/18. He estimated that in terms of the three-year programme of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, this would mean that by the following year the SAHRC would have only R40,000 for its core work.

Makaneta told the Committee that the R3.3 million available for the Commission’s core work was not much more than it had spent on audit fees, which had amounted to R3 million. The CFO said the Commission intended asking the Auditor General for an exemption from paying audit fees.

Only 1.8% of the South African Human Rights Commission budget is used for core business.

As a result of the budget cuts, the Commission has had to review its organisational structure to ensure efficient use of personnel. Instead of having one Commissioner per province, each Commissioner has instead been assigned different areas of responsibility, said the Chief Executive Officer Adv Tseliso Thipanyane, who presented the report.

He explained that the Commission’s Chairperson would be responsible for healthcare while the Deputy Chairperson would focus on equality and social cohesion. The other areas of focus were disability and social security; children and migration; education; and water, sanitation and housing. Part-time commissioners would focus on land, environment and the right to food, and civil and political rights. The Commission identified four areas of concern that would remain the responsibility of each Commissioner: poverty, inequality, unemployment and violence.

His report included talk of plans to monitor whether its reports had been implemented or not. The SAHRC submits reports to international bodies – it has observer status at the United Nations Human Rights Council and presented reports to various UN bodies – as well as committees on behalf of the government. Another area of focus was the SAHRC’s work in litigation, especially in the Equality Court, Thipanyane reported. He said in the current APP it would be broadening its approach to dealing with human rights abuses and a greater focus on ensuring that the public could access information about the SAHRC.

Committee Chairperson Mathole Motshekga was perhaps not that impressed, pointing out that institutions produce documents and send reports to international organisations, including the United Nations, while the poor was being forgotten. He reminded the meeting that human rights were not manna from heaven and wanted to know what the SAHRC could actually do to address poverty because poverty was about service delivery which cannot be divorced from human rights. He said when he heard about litigation, he was concerned about how much government departments were spending on legal fees defending their departments against Chapter 9 institutions, instead of serving the people.

Motshekga earlier commented that the Committee was taking strain from listening to budget presentations in which everyone is asking for more money. It is not only the SAHRC that says it is being hit hard. Other Chapter Nine institutions, such as the Public Protector, said the same in their APPs, arguing that they cannot meet their mandate to preserve and strengthen constitutional democracy, as stipulated in the Constitution.

According to its APP, the SAHRC has frozen three posts in an effort to address budget issues. The Office Manager for the CEO would also serve the CFO and Chairperson’s Office, which saved two posts, and one research advisor would serve two part-time Commissioners, saving another post. New vacancies would be assessed by the CEO to determine whether they needed to be filled.

Further cuts would be made in reducing rental costs. The Commission intended to vacate one of the floors at its head office and offices would be largely open plan to optimise space usage. This would cut rental costs from R14 million to R9 million. The Commission said it would like the government to build a dedicated building for the SAHRC as that would ultimately lead to savings.

The Committee as a whole was not entirely sympathetic at the SAHRC presentation. After all, budget cuts notwithstanding, the question does arise: how does an annual budget of R178 million leave only R3.3 million for programme implementation. That amounts to only 1.8% of the budget being used for core business. Members pointed out that if it were a private company, with productivity at this rate the Commission would soon go under.

Besides, if the SAHRC needed funds there was nothing to stop it from seeking its own funding, over and above that provided by the state. Had the SAHRC tried applying to the Lotto fund, a member asked.

Despite the critical role attributed to the SAHRC in terms of the Constitution, and the work it continues to do, the Committee expressed scepticism, asking bluntly how Members were expect to defend the Commission to Parliament if it did not achieve its mandate. They asked if the Commission existed only to employ people.

A series of further questions were unleashed by Committee members. Where was the long-outstanding report on events at Leeudoringstad School in North West that the Committee had requested? Was the Commission aware of the abuse of human rights by the SABC, not only at SAFM but also at Thobela FM? What was the Commission doing about it?

The Committee expressed further far-reaching concerns about the role the SAHRC played. How did the Commission see itself working with communities where there were service delivery protests? Would the Commission educate people not to destroy infrastructure, or would it only concern itself with policing human rights infractions? Did the Commission understand how violence was affecting the townships and urban areas? Was the Commission reaching out to the people, and how could it help them?

The Committee discussion went directly to the heart of the challenges facing the SAHRC, demonstrating that its difficulties are not confined to budget matters. Above all, and despite its efforts, had the recommendations or remedial actions of the SAHRC been challenged or even ignored, a member asked, or were they binding?

This must be a question – possibly the question – that the SAHRC must be asking itself. Does it have binding powers to enforce its efforts to halt infringements of human rights, or is it a talk shop?

The Commissioners’ response to the Committee was curious, and not very hopeful. It referred to the Constitutional Court judgement that the recommendations of the Public Protector were binding unless overturned by a court, and said they (the SAHRC Commissioners) were determined to take the same approach ‑ except that there has been no such ConCourt decision affecting them and the matter was still being discussed with the Department of Justice.

Moira Levy

Information for this article was sourced from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.

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  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Wednesday, 09 May 2018 18:28

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