May 25, 2020

Women appalled at not being consulted on future of gender commission

Representatives from the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) expressed anger and “disgust” at the way the Office of the Institute Supporting Democracy (OISD) has gone ahead with the process of amalgamating Chapter 9 Institutions, without considering the special role that the gender commission plays in a society fraught with violence against women and girls and particularly harsh patriarchal discrimination.

They also made it clear that they did not approve of the absence of Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli, who has been mandated by the parliamentary Speaker to drive the process of integrating the various Chapter Nine Institutions, so called because they were created in terms of Chapter Nine of the Constitution to protect and promote human rights in different sectors. Tsenoli had sent a letter saying he was unable to attend the meeting, which was held in Parliament in June by the Women in the Presidency Committee.

The Chapter Nine Institutions comprise the Public Protector, the Auditor-General, the Independent Electoral Commission, the SA Human Rights Commission, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, the Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities as well as the GCE.

Women in South Africa are not just experiencing discrimination. The truth is they are effectively under siege.

For more than ten years there has been talk in Parliament of somehow combining all these institutions into a single all-encompassing human rights body. The idea first emerged in 2006, and the late former Cabinet Minister Kader Asmal was later tasked with investigating the proposal. The Asmal Report has never been either trashed or implemented. The watchdog role of these diverse human rights overseers has continued to play a part in parliamentary discourse, even when it has become clear that not all of these institutions have the same bark or bite.

The latest variation of the amalgamation process includes combining them into one institution which would be accommodated in the office of the Speaker to Parliament to enable them to retain their independence from government departments. They would continue to report directly to Parliament annually. The idea was to avoid overlap of responsibilities, but also reflects increasing concern about the expense of running a number of bodies who broadly share the same purpose. The notion has been mooted that they could all be accommodated in one place – latest talk is a refurbished building adjacent to the Constitutional Court – which in itself would save an awful lot of money spent on rent.

But economic viability is not a shared priority among the institutions themselves. Most of them appear to be concerned that they, along with their budgets, would be swallowed up by the SA Human Rights Commission, which on the face of it appears to be almost identical to the proposed amalgamated body and probably in the best position to run it. There is also concern that in the new stream-lined operation tasks may overlap and cause friction, lines of accountability will become even more confusing than they currently are, and staff may find themselves redundant. After all it is unlikely that they would each continue to require a receptionist.

Understandably the prospect of amalgamation, while it’s obviously too good an idea to be rejected, has not been universally well received, especially among the individual institutions themselves. Tsenoli, an ANC stalwart, former underground activist and more recently the man who sometimes braves the Speaker’s chair in the volatile National Assembly, can be forgiven for finding something else that he had to take care of. Breaking the news to the CGE was not going to be easy.

Astonishingly some members said that this was indeed the first they had heard of this project, even though it’s been under discussion at Parliament for years and Tsenoli himself has addressed the very same Committee on the very same topic not long ago.

The reason it may have come as a surprise to some gender commissioners is because, unlike all the other Chapter Nine institutions whose employment is based on five-year contracts, the CGE Commissioners are required to rotate every two years. In addition, questionable though it may be, the CGE budget is all of R79 million, compared to the R286 million allocated to the SA Human Rights Commission and the R290+ million for the Public Protector.

The CGE tends to think of itself as a special case, and it’s not hard to understand why that is, especially given the poor attendance at the meeting of the Women in the Presidency Committee. It also got off to a rather bad start when Kaya Zweni, Head of the OISD, announced that he did not actually have a report ready for this meeting. He explained that a Task Team, under the Deputy Auditor-General, was busy preparing the report, which would be submitted to the Presiding Officers, and suggested that when it was ready the Committee of Women in the Presidency could invite the Deputy Speaker and the OISD back to discuss it. No wonder institutions like the GCE, which reports to the Committee on Women in the Presidency, get the impression that they are not taken that seriously.

But there is another, perfectly justifiable, reason why the GCE has a point when it objects to the notion of being collapsed into one human rights body. While it can never be argued that any human rights abuses may be tolerated, or that any particular form of discrimination is more hateful than any other, women in South Africa are not just experiencing discrimination. The truth is they are effectively under siege.

Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Women in the Presidency, said the report was very relevant given “what was happening to women nowadays. Patriarchy is entrenched as an institution and we have not scratched the surface”. She asked: “Do other people understand gender issues?” and expressed strong reservations about amalgamation, saying it sounds like it is being suggested that the CGE “cannot do something on its own”.

“Amalgamation of such an important commission is saying we can’t be independent, we can’t carry our agenda forward and therefore we are going the need some help.” She said the problem was that the CGE was given powers, but not the tools of engagement and warned that there were many pending issues that would need the GCE, for example the question of land. Customary law and lineage has never resulted in giving land to women, she said. “I am expecting that the gender commission is going to have a big role to play in that.”

Committee member Mervyn Dirks (ANC) asked about the extent of public participation and who was consulted in this process. More specifically, he wanted to know if women had been engaged and their voices heard. He also expressed reservation about the Task Team report on amalgamation going to Parliament before the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency and the Multi-party Women’s Caucus has seen it.

In talking to the public, he said, “it was very clear that the CGE could never be amalgamated” and he got the sense that the only reason for amalgamation were financial constraints “instead of the importance of women’s issues and women’s needs in the country”.

Cynthia Majeke (UDM) said that duplication may be a problem between other Chapter Nine institutions, and she thought it could be resolved through consultation and collaboration, but she warned “if the CGE was amalgamated with other institutions, its role of looking into gender inequality would not be taken into consideration.”

Denise Robinson (DA) declared herself disgusted and dismayed about the way that this Committee had been treated. “We should have been among the first to hear about this, and not via the back door. We hear now that once a report is ready we can make our input. If this Committee was taken seriously this would not have happened, and this is typical of the power relations in the country and its patriarchal attitudes. Don’t put us at the back of the queue when you talk about us. Nothing about without us.”

She went on to say that given how many women and children are subjected to violence in South Africa she was “nauseated” and appalled at the idea that the CGE’s function may be reduced. She added that unlike many other Chapter Nine institutions, the CGE has had a clean audit for the past 10 years and it should be given a bigger budget.

Lulama Nare, Chairperson of the CGE, said that the commission had been part of discussions on amalgamation for the past five years and had recently been told that as sitting commissioners they were not permitted to advise the Task Team. They were simply asked to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to amalgamation. After submitting a dissenting report, they were told that the CGE’s position will be labelled ‘no’ and if they wanted support they would have to lobby for it or appeal directly to the Presiding Officers to explain why the CGE was needed.

“The Human Rights Commission is not ready to take care of the Gender Commission and its mandate,” she said and expressed concern that if the CGE was amalgamated with the SAHRC its budget along with its role and purpose would be swallowed up. “We need a substantive discussion with the Deputy Speaker and the Speaker’s office and the OISD office because we feel there is something that they do not want to hear that they are supposed to be listening to.”

Moira Levy

Additional information sourced from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group.

Additional Info

  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Monday, 11 June 2018 19:34

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