Guest Column

More rigour needed in appointing Human Rights Commissioners

2016-10-13 07:14

Lawson Naidoo

On 13 and 14 October the Portfolio Committee on Justice & Correctional Services in the National Assembly will interview 18 candidates to fill seven vacancies for Human Rights Commissioners. The Committee had whittled down 81 nominations to a shortlist of 18 at a meeting on 5 October which lasted around 90 minutes.

Whilst much is made of the openness and transparency in this process and that of appointing the new Public Protector a few weeks ago, that should not blind us to the weaknesses in the processes employed by parliamentary committees.

These vacancies are advertised in the media, shared on social media and popularised by interested civil society organisations, the names of candidates and their CVs are made public, the interviews are conducted in public, and in the case of the Public Protector, were televised live. Opportunities are provided for members of the public to comment on the candidates, and even to suggest questions that may be posed to candidates. These are all factors on the positive side.

On the other hand, there is a significant lack of robustness and rigour in the actual process followed. The pretence at doing the right thing is undermined by the reality of 63 candidates being eliminated without proper scrutiny. Any human resources practitioner will tell you that in a recruitment process there must be agreement on the criteria for a position before it is advertised, and that applicants are evaluated according these objective criteria. Such evaluations usually require each member of the interview or selection panel to score each candidate based on these criteria. Such a structured approach ensures fairness, equity and competitiveness. It will also enable the Committee to ensure that the composition of the SAHRC reflects’ broadly the race and gender composition of South Africa’ as required under s.193(2) of the Constitution.

The Portfolio Committee chose to dispense with these sound processes and instead relied on good old fashioned political horse-trading. All political parties represented in the Committee were afforded an opportunity to nominate candidates. All the candidates nominated in this manner were in fact shortlisted. There was no debate on the merits of any of the candidates. We have no evidence to show that the members of the Committee did in fact apply their minds to all 81 nominees. We saw in the Public Protector appointment process where the shortlisting was conducted in similar vein how some eminently unsuitable candidates made it through to the interview stage.

The Chairperson of this Committee, Dr Mathole Motshekga, seemed more eager to ensure that the interests of all political parties were taken into account, rather than ensuring that the most deserving candidates proceeded to the interview stage.  

Yet he went on to say that the Committee invited comments and objections from the public on the 18 shortlisted candidates. However, he presided over a process that paid scant regard to a 218 page submission on the background, skills and experience of all 81 nominated candidates that was submitted to the Committee ahead of the shortlisting process by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC); we were not even accorded the courtesy of an acknowledgment of our submission.

Such a method of shortlisting is a smack in the face for those 63 candidates who have been summarily eliminated from further consideration without even knowing whether anyone even bothered to read their applications and CVs.

We are likely to witness robust, probing questioning of the candidates in the interviews that are scheduled to take place over two days. However this show of scrutiny and enquiry is soon lost when the next phase of the appointment process kicks in. Here again we are likely to see an apparently arbitrary decision making routine where the final list of 7 preferred candidates is agreed. There is unlikely to be any objective evaluation of the candidates’ interview performance. The best we can hope for is some MPs objecting to current Commissioners being recommended for a second term based on their performance in their first term of seven years.

Although the Ad Hoc Committee dealing with the Public Protector was prompted to recommend that the “National Assembly look into establishing guidelines for committees of the Assembly when dealing with appointments of public office bearers to independent constitutional institutions”, this has yet to be done.

Such existing practices by Parliamentary Committees can only serve to discourage people who wish to serve the country in these important institutions of governance from making themselves available for consideration.  Moreover it does not suggest that a rigorous, competitive process is employed to identify the best candidates for these positions.

We need look no further than the Board of Directors of the SABC, who are also appointed by a Parliamentary Committee, to see the folly of a politicised approach.

- Lawson Naidoo is the Executive Secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC)

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