15 March 2016
By Chairperson Lourence Mushwana, Commissioner responsible for Migration & Equality
As you know, the Commission is a constitutionally-enshrined body, first envisioned in the country’s interim Constitution and included in Chapter Nine of the final Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.
In their wisdom, the drafters of the Constitution envisaged that the Chapter Nine institutions will serve as the protective framework for constitutional democracy and a guarantee of non-occurrence of evil and ills of apartheid.
By facilitating Government’s answerability to questions and concerns raised by all who live in South Africa, the Chapter Nine institutions make significant contribution to accountable governance and the transformation of society.
As a Chapter Nine institution, the Commission is independent, impartial, subject only to the Constitution and the law and it reports to Parliament.
In discharging its mandate of advancing the rights of all in South Africa, the Commission operates without fear or favour.
We seek and forge collaboration with all three branches of government, with civil society, with peer institutions supporting democracy, with international and regional bodies and with the academic community.
The Commission enjoys an ‘A’ status as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), which means that we are fully and irrevocably independent from government, pluralistic in our composition and transparent in operations and indeed our governance.
The Commission has been an active state institution supporting constitutional democracy over the past two decades, expanding from a staff of less than twenty in 1995 to over 180 today.
A small staff compliment indeed to serve over 55 million people in this country.
Nevertheless the Commission has a presence in all nine provinces, and counts among its many functions the handling of individual complaints, national and provincial investigative hearings, research and monitoring of the attainment of human rights; public education and advocacy.
We are well aware that this constitutional mandate is a mammoth task, particularly considering the history of institutionalised exclusion based on race, colour, and rights violations that characterised South African society prior to democracy.
We are aware, also, that numerous rights violations continue to occur on a daily basis and that the legacies of colonialism and apartheid can be seen in contemporary daily life.
20 years in our constitutional democracy, the gap between the extremely rich and the very poor continues to widen, the South African economy is still exclusionary, the country is facing a serious slow economic growth, falling investment, rising joblessness, a poorly educated workforce, skills shortages and high cost structures; it is apt to ask if there is anything worth celebrating?
We at the South African Commission believe that despite the challenges, there are reasons to celebrate.
In the 20 years of its existence, the Commission has provided individuals and groups with resolutions to their complaints and enquires.
Between 2009 and 2013, for instance, the Commission received 34,859 complaints and inquires and resolved 32,722 of these.
In addition, the Commission has conducted over 30 investigations into structural, systemic and systematic challenges to service delivery across the country – ranging from the delivery of learning materials to schools, water and sanitation, to housing and environmental pollution.
Furthermore, the Commission, through its submissions and comments before Parliament, has substantially contributed to over 40 major legislations with wider implications for the dignity, rights and wellbeing of all who live in South Africa.
These are just a few examples of the contribution of the Commission.
Put side by side with the challenges people living in South Africa are facing daily, these contributions of the Commission become insignificant.
However, measured against the available capacity and resource of the Commission, these are modest contributions to ensuring a responsible and responsive governance culture in South Africa.
Perhaps our greatest contribution, as an intermediary between persons in South Africa and the Government, is our ability to act as an effective barometer of the feelings of our people.
One great tool at the disposal of the Commission that enables it to perform the function of a barometer is complaints handling.
For instance, a trend analysis of the complaints we received over the years shows that most of our complaints have been in the areas of just administrative action, followed by equality.
It is this ability of the Commission to measure the nation’s pulse that has, in part, informed and influenced the decision of the Commission to put a spotlight on the challenges racism poses to nation building and social cohesion.
In addition, the decision by the Commission to choose racism as its central focus during this celebration is in response to the call by the President to galvanize the nation around the vices of racism.
Anyone who has been following events in South Africa in early 2016 will be well aware that race relations continue to be a significant fault line dividing the nation.
In the past few weeks alone, the Commission has received and is now processing additional 168 complaints related to racism.
This is despite the admirable work of numerous segments of societies including the Commission itself.
Even though racism has economic, social and political causes, we cannot afford to reduce our response to political and blame games.
As Chair of the Equality Review Committee, mandated in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000, I have personally witnessed the numerous challenges faced in ensuring that the right to equality exists for South Africans not only in name, but also in lived experiences.
Historically, race has always been a significant focus area for the Commission, which is perhaps not surprising given its centrality in our national discourse.
The Commission previously housed the Equality Legislation Drafting Unit and hosted the National Equality Summit in 2004.
In 2008, following the infamous Reitz incident at the University of the Free State, the Commission worked with that institution to establish the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and to form a Human Rights Desk.
Recent events at UFS demonstrate that we as the Commission in collaboration with the University we need to redouble such efforts and that we will need to seek out new means of securing sustainable outcomes.
Moreover, we are well aware that, in seeking to address racist behaviours, we must not lose sight of the need to counter racist attitudes.
As a Commission, we are well aware of the challenges we face in promoting a culture of human rights.
These are not just our challenges as a Commission. These are the challenges of the nation and together we must stay vigilant and together, we must seek lasting solutions.
Issues of capacity are perennial constraints for the Commission, and the current debates around the powers of Chapter Nine institutions are reflective of the challenges we often face in seeking to promote accountability.
Even so, the SAHRC will never shy away from its responsibilities to promote, protect and monitor all the rights contained in the Constitution.
As chairperson of the Commission l can equivocally say that the South African Human Rights Commission stands ready to provide leadership and to work with South African citizens in the promotion of a culture of human rights.
To this end we have worked closely with sister institutions across the globe, both in terms of information sharing and best practices.
The Commission will not rest, every citizen of this country can cash on the promises contained in our constitution’s bill of rights.
As the Commission celebrates 20 years of service to human rights, we do so reflecting on lessons we have learned and challenges the Commission has encountered.
Adv. Mushwana is the Chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission. This is an edited speech delivered at the SAHRC 20 Year Commemoration and Conference on racism.