Gender commission selection heeded civil society's needs

I wish to clarify the issues raised by Sisonke Msimang in “Parliament scorn for civil society a cause for concern” (Mail & Guardian, February 3).

The selection was not conducted by a parliamentary portfolio committee. It was undertaken by the ad hoc committee on the filling of vacancies in the Commission for Gender Equality.

The role of a portfolio committee is to provide oversight of a government department. It has other functions (processing legislation governing its department, conducting research, undertaking study tours), but an ad hoc committee is a short-term committee set up by Parliament to perform a specific function and is dissolved by Parliament when it has presented its report to the National Assembly.

The ad hoc committee was not required by law to hold public hearings or mandated to perform an oversight function. Its task was simply to draw up a shortlist of candidates to fill vacancies in the commission. That has been completed and the report will be debated in Parliament on February 21. As chairperson of that ad hoc committee I am satisfied that I performed the task exactly according to Parliament’s mandate.

The criticism that there were no hearings is thus unjustified. I find it curious that Msimang could suggest that I said I had no time for the “class of NGOs calling themselves civil society” and I am dismayed that she can so easily dispense with my track record as a community activist and my background in the non-governmental organisation sector. I am a product of NGOs and a national leader in the civil society that I consider to be my constituency.

I welcomed the contribution of NGOs but explained that including their questions in the interviews would give candidates from those same NGOs an unfair advantage. I welcomed letters from NGOs in support of the committee. I share their concern that commissioners with the ability to improve the effectiveness of the commission be appointed. But we could compromise candidates from those NGOs. The committee agreed that candidates not from those NGOs, and thus without advance knowledge of these questions, could challenge the fairness of the selection process.

I recognise Msimang’s right to comment, but her assumptions about the selection process and Parliament’s integrity in this instance are misinformed.

She must be aware that I declared that community activism was the determining factor in the shortlisting of candidates. I said at the time: “It is critical that, as representatives of the people, we put forward names of candidates who are in touch with the community ... These should be candidates that understand [the] gender-based challenges faced by our communities.” Msimang should be aware that I was a recipient of the Martin Luther King Junior Award for being an outstanding community development worker in 1994 and a finalist in the Sowetan/Eskom Community Builder Award in 1993.

I founded the Imbali Rehabilitation Programme that facilitated peace in Imbali between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC in the early 1990s. Msimang’s suggestion that I would pit myself against the NGO community that I have served for almost 40 years is as insulting as it is inaccurate.

Ruth Bhengu chaired the ad hoc committee to fill ­vacancies at the Commission for Gender ­Equality and is president of the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco)

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