​South African Human Rights Commission staff round on officials

No go: SAHRC chairperson Lawrence Mushwana denies that reports are changed for political reasons, as some staff members have claimed. (Veli Nhlapo, Gallo Images, Sowetan)

No go: SAHRC chairperson Lawrence Mushwana denies that reports are changed for political reasons, as some staff members have claimed. (Veli Nhlapo, Gallo Images, Sowetan)

The staff of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) are on the warpath, vehemently opposing the reappointment of two of its commissioners.

They claim the chairperson, Lawrence Mushwana, and a commissioner, Lindiwe Mokate, have tampered with reports and are guilty of bullying, victimisation and human rights violations.

In the past year, at least five high-ranking staff members, including chief executive Lindiwe Khumalo and chief operating officer Shireen Motara, have left the organisation.

The process to find seven new commissioners started in September and Mushwana and Mokate were two of 18 nominees interviewed last week.

But, before the parliamentary portfolio committee on justice and correctional services interviewed the prospective commissioners, the staff sent it a damning letter containing allegations of how Mokate and Mushwana are “not fit and proper” to be part of the commission.

The letter, dated September 29, states that Mokate has “victimised and bullied many employees in the commission, most of whom she used her pliable acolytes to get fired or have their contracts not renewed or life was made extremely difficult for them. All those who have resigned gave Lindiwe Mokate as the reason”.

Four senior officials, who are previous and current commission employees, have said Mokate created an intolerable working environment.

“She is a bully, who is universal in her approach in intimidating people and being a prima donna.
If any single person has contributed to an atmosphere of toxicity within the commission and a divide between commissioners and staff, it would lie at her door,” said a current staff member.

Another staff member said the two commissioners’ strong ties to the ruling party was a problem, citing the commission’s most recent report on the investigation into King Goodwill Zwelithini’s utterances during the xenophobic attacks two years ago.

It is alleged that Mushwana took over the case and, according to staff members, this is not due process. Sources said he sidelined everyone he did not trust, which included the head of legal affairs, who should oversee most investigations.

Responding to the allegations, Mushwana said: “The reality is that the complaint did not only come from [KwaZulu-Natal].There were people who complained from Gauteng and abroad. This one came from a multiplicity of provinces.

“We decided to escalate this to head office and no one raised a finger. Maybe if they did we would have said ‘hang on’.”

He added that he decided to work on the case because it fell under his area of focus and he was the chairperson. He denied that the legal team was not involved, citing a meeting held with the Webber Wentzel law firm and the legal division of the commission.

It has also been alleged that, unlike in other investigations where respondents are interviewed, the SAHRC never questioned the king directly, relying instead on written responses.

“The end result is what many there believe is a sanitised version of the report, which will go down in history as the worst last report for the retiring commissioners,” an employee said.

A former employee said the role of the commissioners is to provide broad strategic direction.

“But what we found, particularly with investigative reports, is that commissioners will change findings and it’s unclear why the changes are made. The view is that they change them for reasons of political expediency.”

Mushwana agreed that reports had been changed but only when the commissioners sat down with the investigators “like a bench of judges do and discuss the report”.

Current and former staff members are not the only ones who have objected to the reappointment of Mokate and Mushwana. The portfolio committee also received a report from the South Africa First Forum, led by Vytjie Mentor. It is scathing about Mokate and Mushwana and urges that they should not be reappointed.

“Lindiwe Mokate … was appointed at the SAHRC in 2009 despite having worked as the CEO of the SAHRC before leaving that organisation under a cloud in 2005.

“Commissioner Lawrence Mushwana is currently the chairperson of the SAHRC and, under his stewardship, the SAHRC has often been silent on many issues and invisible to the public,” the report states.

Mokate dismissed the allegations.

“I don’t know any of these issues that you are mentioning because no one has ever mentioned them to me. I don’t have staff. I only have a PA [personal assistant] and research associate. The staff is under the CEO, so I wouldn’t know why staff would be saying that. Actually, I don’t believe it.”

Mushwana has been dogged by controversy from as far back as 2004, when he found that comments by the director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, about President Jacob Zuma’s involvement in the arms deal were “unfair and improper”.

In 2005, the Mail & Guardian revealed how R11-million in taxpayers’ money had flowed from PetroSA to the ANC’s 2004 election campaign through the empowerment oil trader, Imvume Management.

In 2006, Mushwana released his report into the matter, which dismissed the M&G’s story as “factually incorrect”.

The newspaper took the report on review and, in 2009, Judge Ntsikelelo Poswa found it in the M&G’s favour, setting the report aside.

In 2006, Mushwana found nothing amiss with then d=Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s R700 000 splurge on a questionable trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Gayle Smith, spokesperson for the commission, said they were aware of the objections sent to the portfolio committee by the staff and confirmed the resignation of five top officials.

“The commission respects the parliamentary process in respect of appointing new commissioners and as such respects the rights of anyone, including commission staff, to make such submissions as part of a transparent process.

“In August 2016, the SAHRC commissioned a consultant to provide an independent report on staff resignations. The SAHRC is awaiting the report.”

Smith reiterated the chairperson’s position that the Zwelithini matter was taken over by the national office and outside legal counsel was sought because it was a high-profile case.

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession. Read more from Athandiwe Saba

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