Reasons why I had to leave

Outgoing Human Rights Commission official Rhoda Kadalie this week lifted the lid on the seething tension within the commission which led to her resignation.

In an exclusive interview with the Mail & Guardian, Kadalie, commissioner for the Western Cape, blamed her departure on incompetence among key commission officials, personality clashes and “enormous tensions” between commission staff and management.

Kadalie wrote to President Nelson Mandela last week, detailing the Human Rights Commission’s problems and imploring him to appoint a parliamentary committee to oversee it.

She told the M&G the commission was “like a horse with two heads”, each pulling in different directions: “The staff feel we don’t have a vision they can plug into, while from the commissioners’ point of view, the staff are a law unto themselves and call the tune.”

Personality clashes were “endemic” and had led to the resignation of almost one-third of the commission’s staff in the 18 months it has been operating.

Too little had been done to keep good staff, said Kadalie, while a “bad employment policy” had created “pockets of incompetence and mediocrity” in key positions.

The commission, led by Barney Pityana, has blamed much of its difficulties on its funding. Kadalie said the commission did need to have its budget increased, but said “more money will not address questions around management”.

She said she had great respect for Pityana’s vision, but he needed a strong management team. A meeting in May to deal with a range of problems, including the exclusion of commissioners from decision- making, their relationship with CEO Louisa Zondo and perceptions that Zondo was being “protected” by Pityana, had failed as far as she was concerned.

A commission representative this week referred all inquiries to Pityana, who was unavailable. Zondo is overseas.

In the letter to Mandela, Kadalie says she had made “several attempts to bring the problems of the commission to the attention of the deputy president and other key persons in government, to no avail”. She lists the frustrations that forced her to resign a job that put her “at the cutting edge” of human rights work.

* A fundamental difference of opinion over the focus of the commission.
* Lack of good management and leadership.
* Personality conflicts.
* “Pockets of incompetence and mediocrity in key positions” owing to a “bad employment policy”.

Western Cape Human Rights Commission legal officer Ron Paschke, who resigned soon after Kadalie, blamed “growing frustration and disillusionment” with the commission in his letter of resignation.

Paschke was not available for comment this week. But in his letter he added that his relationship with the commission’s Johannesburg headquarters was “a source of constant frustration”. Instead of support he had been subjected to “petty backbiting”.

He said he was seen as “an adjunct” of the Johannesburg office, which was more concerned with him “being out of control” than the quality of his work.

The commission had not made enough resources available to enable him to function effectively.
Another source of frustration was in the bureaucratic inefficiencies “too numerous to mention”, including the unexpected delay in getting a complaints database when the commission had “been sitting for months with three quotes, all for less than R20 000”, which meant no tendering was necessary.

His suggestion that the commission refer some cases to other bodies better equipped to deal with them was “twisted” to imply the region was not accepting racism cases – a false allegation, he said.

Tensions escalated after Johannesburg staff failed to make themselves available for a meeting to resolve issues.

Kadalie said that the commission, instead of trying to be “all things to all people”, should focus on three key areas: building up its legal department (a complaints registrar had yet to be appointed); socio- economic rights; and national projects concerning the rights of farmworkers, children at risk and the elderly.

She had written a “constructive letter” to Pityana, spelling out her proposals, but at a subsequent meeting with commissioners he said he disagreed with her. “I was not satisfied with that response to my letter, and that’s why I am definitely going to go,” she said.

Kadalie is serving her three-month notice period. Paschke is joining the Bureau of Justice, a joint project between the Ministry of Justice and the Vera Institute of New York.

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Gaye Davis
Guest Author

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