/ 14 September 2012

Rights body defends its Marikana inquiry

South African Human Rights Commission deputy chairperson Pregs Govender.
South African Human Rights Commission deputy chairperson Pregs Govender.

The SAHRC is sticking to its guns and not withdrawing its co-operation with the Legal Resources Centre as it investigates the circumstances and events connected to the Marikana massacre in mid-August, the chapter nine institution said on Thursday.

Its decision comes despite pressure from Parliament's justice portfolio committee earlier this week, which raised concerns about the "conflict of interest" that may arise from the centre's "double representation" of both the commission and the families of dead miners.

Commission spokesperson Isaac Mangena said that, after much discussion, the organisation had decided that, "as an independent institution we cannot remain neutral on the matter" and it was imperative for the commission to investigate any human rights violations that may have occurred at Marikana.

He added that the commission did not believe there was a conflict of interest in its investigation and it would represent itself at the commission of inquiry set up by President Jacob Zuma and chaired by retired Judge Ian Farlam.

Justice committee member and ANC MP John Jeffery told the Mail & Guardian there were "multiparty concerns" about the centre's double representation and what effect it would have on the gathering and verification of evidence. "What happens to evidence by policemen if, for example, they give evidence to the Legal Resources Centre as representatives of the SAHRC, or if police feel uncomfortable to give evidence to the SAHRC because of this double representation?"

During the committee's sitting on Tuesday, Jeffery said he was "baffled" by the commission's involvement in Marikana: "I think it's a complete waste of resources. What is the point of the SAHRC doing that when there is a full-blown judicial commission of inquiry, which has been given a specific time limit, where all the evidence will be subject to cross-examination?"

The SAHRC Act allows the body wide-ranging powers for any investigation it conducts, including the power to subpoena witnesses, access to relevant documents and premises and that "all organs of state shall afford the commission such assistance as may be reasonably required for effective exercising of its powers and performance of its duties and functions".

Organs of state include the intelligence, police and other security apparatus and whatever documentation and evidence they may have.

Jeffery said he was wary of a situation in which the commission of inquiry made findings and the SAHRC made different findings. "How is that going to help us?"

The Democratic Alliance's Dene Smuts echoed Jeffery's sentiments, saying the SAHRC needed to give a "justification" for its investigation.

But the commission's deputy chairperson, Pregs Govender, defended its stance and said the Bench Marks Foundation report, released shortly before the Marikana massacre, had very specific recommendations for the SAHRC.

The report suggested the commission should investigate numerous problems, including violations of the right to learn in the Rustenburg area, mines that have "trumped the land rights of communities" and the role of traditional leaders in negotiating the commencement and operation of mining.

The commission's chief executive, Kayum Ahmed, told the parliamentary committee: "We were approached with a complaint against the police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, in terms of her overall responsibility as an accounting officer in terms of what happened regarding human rights violations.

"We asked the Legal Resources Centre to break it down for us into the conduct of the police during the demonstrations, the shootings, the allegations of people being shot in the back; and the subsequent allegations of torture."

The terms of reference for the Farlam commission were gazetted on Wednesday.

The justice department had given itself until September 14 to confirm the commission's budget, when it was to begin work, where it would be seated and who the leader of evidence would be.