Mushwana claims first HRC casualty

South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) chief executive Tseliso Thipanyane has resigned after being stripped of key powers by the new chairperson of the commission, controversial former public protector Lawrence Mushwana.

The commission has been keeping Thipanyane’s resignation secret since he submitted it on November 30. He will leave at the end of this month.

Two senior staff members at the commission told the Mail & Guardian that Mushwana prevented Thipanyane from giving media interviews on behalf of the commission and from representing it at work-related events—including trips the chief executive had already committed to attending, some of which had already been paid for.

“Tseliso has felt disempowered since Mushwana arrived,” said one commission senior staff member. “He was no longer consulted when decisions were made.
He was sidelined and junior people would know things before he did.”

The most recent work trip Thipanyane had to cancel was to Trinidad and Tobago last month, where he was to represent the commission at a Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions meeting on climate change and human rights.

SAHRC deputy chief executive Naledzani Mukhwevho represented the commission after the Commonwealth Forum pleaded with it to send at least one representative because expenses had already been fully paid by the forum.

“We expected that they [Mushwana and Thipanyane] would not have a good start, but he [Thipanyane] is known to be very tough. His resignation came as a surprise,” said another senior staff member.

Thipanyane’s resignation comes a month after the former public protector took over as the commission’s chairperson. When his appointment was announced in October, Mushwana told the M&G that one of his priorities at the commission would be to assert the authority of human rights commissioners against the seemingly more powerful role of the commission’s chief executive.

He said he would push for an amendment to the South African Human Rights Commission Act of 1994, which does not provide a clear definition of the work of commissioners and the chief executive. “As long as you don’t have an executive authority in any institution, then you have problems. The chief executive must be subjected to an executive authority,” he said.

The chief executive should deal with the organisation’s finances and administration, he said. “When it comes to matters of human rights, the Act gives powers to commissioners.” He said chief executives were “bureaucrats” who were expected to give financial and administrative support to commissioners.

But a spokesperson for the commission expressed “total surprise” this week when the M&G asked about a reduction in the chief executive’s powers. “In fact the chief executive is continuing with his responsibilities as the head of the commission’s secretariat right until his last day with the organisation,” said Vincent Moaga.

Thipanyane had been expected to help ensure continuity after the entire team of commissioners left in September at the end of their non-renewable terms. He was arguably the most visibly active chief executive of any Chapter 9 institution. In addition to being the commission’s accounting officer in terms of the Public Finance Management Act he was its chief spokesperson under former chairperson Jody Kollapen.

No press statement was released without his approval and he articulated the commission’s findings on several cases. He was fearlessly independent and outspoken in the running of the commission.

Thipanyane headed the commission secretariat, which includes the legal services and information programmes. The commission’s website lists “ensuring good relations with the media” as one of the responsibilities of the information and communication programme, which falls under the chief executive.

The M&G has reliably learned that Mushwana failed to persuade Thipanyane to serve a longer notice, apparently until the end of March.

  • In another development, new Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has withdrawn all charges against chief executive Themba Mthethwa, saying there was “no legal basis” to charge him in the first place. Mushwana suspended Mthethwa a few days before he left the protector’s office, accusing him of failing to declare a medical condition that could have affected his appointment. Mushwana accused Mthethwa of misconduct in not disclosing that his previous employer, the South African Local Government Association, had investigated him for alleged tender irregularities. It was later ascertained that Mthethwa had mentioned the matter in a job interview for the chief executive position.
  • Mmanaledi Mataboge

    Mmanaledi Mataboge

    Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge

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