Etzebeth case divides the SAHRC

Eben Etzebeth.
Eben Etzebeth.

Signs of cracks within the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) have become visible in the past few weeks, as the organisation handles the controversial hate speech case against Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth.

The commission this week took to social media to announce that it would be investigating its own acting head of legal services, Buang Jones, for inappropriate comments allegedly made during a gathering regarding the Etzebeth case last month in Langebaan, Western Cape.

However, a letter penned by Langebaan community leader Sammy Claasen on behalf of the victims and their legal representative raised concern that there might be an attempt to get rid of Jones.

“Why is it that after the Friday submission of the application to the equality court there is a witch-hunt or investigation and a push from within certain quarters of the Human Rights Commission to investigate, silence and eliminate Buang Jones and others who have assisted in the case?” she questioned in the letter dated October 9 2019.

While Jones has been barred from speaking to the media during the course of the investigation, SAHRC commissioner Andre Gaum has dismissed these claims and said there was “no kind of campaign against Mr Jones”.

“The commission decided on Wednesday to institute an urgent investigation regarding the alleged remarks attributed to Jones. The comments might have left signs of prejudice on the part of the commission.

“So, first of all, the investigation is led by the chairperson of the commission, Bongani Majola, and it is into whether Jones should continue with the Etzebeth investigation. It is also a full investigation into these alleged remarks,” Gaum told City Press.

READ: The Etzebeth case: So many questions, but we’ve all made up our minds already

Jones was quoted at the community meeting as saying that the commission did not care about the offender’s prominence or standing in society, “whether you are Eben Etzebeth, Adam Catzavelos or Angelo Agrizzi”.

“He [Etzebeth] always got away with it. But this time around, it stops here,” he reportedly said.

Meanwhile, Gaum’s credibility has also been in the spotlight, as a result of a possible irregularity in the procedure applied to the Etzebeth case.

Claasen states in the letter that the community was left “shocked” after the commission decided to bypass its procedure in this particular case.

After the complaint was laid, the commission decided to make it a priority to meet with Etzebeth and his legal team, while excluding complainants and community members.

Eben Etzebeth. Picture: Deaan Vivier

“We felt betrayed and a growing sense of mistrust developed between the victims and the Human Rights Commission. This mistrust and frustration was subsequently managed as an intervention by Buang Jones and Chris Nissen, who managed to calm the victims and the community,” the letter read.

This led the community to continue to cooperate and participate in giving statements and evidence, to the point where the case was submitted to the equality court.

The meeting with Etzebeth and his legal counsel was held on August 29, and Gaum was among the commissioners in attendance.

Gaum then attended a gathering with the Langebaan community on September 1, but allegedly did not mention that the commission had already met with Etzebeth and that it had been concluded that he could go to Japan to participate in the Rugby World Cup.

“Gaum was aware of this alleged agreement but kept quiet and failed to inform the victims, complainants and the affected community about this agreement,” said Claasen.

Gaum explained that there was nothing unusual for the commission to deviate from normal procedure, if it was warranted.

“What we wanted to establish is, first of all, whether he would offer his full cooperation with the matter as far as the commission is involved. We wanted to give him the opportunity to provide his version of events.

“If, for example, he had indicated that he did in fact utter the H-word we would have advised the South African Rugby Union that he should not go to Japan.”

Gaum continued: He gave his version and denied these allegations, which means they need to be established. So there was good cause for meeting him before he left. Soon afterwards we met with the community in Langebaan.

The SAHRC guidelines state that if a complaint is lodged, the matter should first be assigned by a legal practitioner who would speak to the complainant to get details about the matter.

After getting this information, a letter must then be sent to the alleged perpetrator in which they would be invited to give their side of the story.

An assessment would be made by the commission to ascertain whether they would be taking up the matter or utilising alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.

In this case a letter of complaint was never sent to Etzebeth. However, Gaum said this was not necessary because it was subsequently decided that the matter would be handled by the equality court in Hopefield.

“The commission did not say, okay you can go to Japan. What the commission did say is that in the meantime, we will liaise with his lawyers.

“We will not provide him with the allegations letter because we have decided to approach a different forum, which is the equality court,” Gaum said.

The commissioner was accused of handling the matter speedily because he was scheduled to go to the World Cup as part of a group of officials due to attend the event as the “parliamentary rugby team”.

“Days after the community meeting in Langebaan, we established that this same commissioner (Gaum) left for Japan to be with the Springboks,” Claasen said in the letter.

Gaum told City Press that he had been part of the parliamentary team since 1999 and there was no conflict of interest regarding his trip to Japan.

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