/ 27 May 2009

EU wants its R10m returned

An audit of the SAHRC finds ‘certain funds cannot be satisfactorily accounted for’, writes Mmanaledi Mataboge

The European Commission has asked the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to return R10-million donated by the European Union, which it says has not been properly accounted for.

And the SAHRC is refusing to repay it, saying the money was used ”according to contract”.

The Mail & Guardian learned of the dispute from a confidential letter sent by disgruntled SAHRC employees to Parliament requesting intervention in the commission’s affairs.

European Commission spokesperson Frank Oberholzer confirmed that a recent audit of European funding to the SAHRC indicated that ”certain funds cannot be satisfactorily accounted for”.

The R10-million was part of the R80-million provided by the EU’s Reconstruction and Development Programme for the funding of the Civil Society Advocacy Programme (CSAP), jointly run by the SAHRC, the Commission on Gender Equality and the Public Protector.

The CSAP’s mandate was to facilitate interaction between the Chapter 9 institutions and civil society, so that communities can gain access to the organisations charged with upholding their constitutional rights.

The SAHRC’s chief executive, Tseliso Thipanyane, conceded that the EU asked the commission in December to repay R10-million on behalf of the three Chapter 9 institutions.

But he argued that this was merely because service providers had signed sub-contracts ”a week or two later than the requisite date in 2006”.

Thipanyane said the SAHRC was refusing to repay the money, as it was ”used according to the contract, save for the late signing of the sub-contracts by the service providers, and that is an issue the EU could have raised in 2006 and not 2008”.

Oberholzer insisted, however, that unless convincing documentary evidence was produced to prove that the SAHRC used the money for the CSAP, the European Commission was ”procedurally bound to seek recovery of the said funds”.

In their letter to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, sent on May 13 this year, the six SAHRC employees called for an investigation into the commission before new commissioners are appointed. The Speaker’s office has advertised for new SAHRC commissioners.

Alleging financial mismanagement and lack of accountability at the human rights body, they complain of low staff morale, high staff turnover, low productivity and output and lack of clear strategic direction, which they blame on the ”ineffective” management style of Thipanyane and SAHRC chair Jody Kollapen.

One of the employees, who asked not to be named for fear of ”victimisation”, told the M&G: ”Most people resign within a year; the IT system is in a shambles and the commission is not well resourced, making it difficult for us to perform our duties.”

The 2007 report of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa, titled ”The effectiveness and impact of three constitution-building institutions in South Africa”, found that the SAHRC took action only after alleged human rights violations were highlighted by the media.

On the issue of staff turnover Thipanyane said the type of staff the commission required, including lawyers and researchers, were in demand.

Of the 150 employees only 20 had resigned in the 2008-2009 financial year. He added that the commission has initiated an organisational health survey to establish problems and ”come up with corrective strategies”.

Oberholzer said Europe’s commitment to South Africa’s justice and democracy sectors was not in jeopardy. The EU is among the largest donors to South Africa.