Human Rights Commission 'halted probe' into Zille tweet

Human Rights Commission 'halted probe' into Zille tweet.
Human Rights Commission 'halted probe' into Zille tweet.
Image: Esa Alexander.

The South African Human Rights Commission would have been well placed to investigate the constitutionality of former DA leader Helen Zille's tweets on colonialism but halted their investigation into the incident.

"We had received complaints but we decided to halt the investigation because the matter was taken to court. We had to await the outcome of the process before commencing‚" explained Commissioner Buang Jones.

Many observers have criticised Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane for probing the tweet‚ accusing her of stepping into the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission and Equality Court.

Jones said the commission's main focus was protecting human rights. "Issues of maladministration do not fall within our scope‚" he said.

The duties of the Public Protector include investigating any level of government or public entity for misconduct‚ such as maladministration‚ abuse of power‚ unfair conduct and unlawful enrichment. She can also investigate a breach of an ethics code that applies to the executive branch of government.

The March 2017 tweet by Zille read: "For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative‚ think of our independent judiciary‚ transport infrastructure‚ piped water."

The tweet sparked outrage‚ resulting in the leadership of the DA announcing her suspension and the Black First Land First group taking her on in court.

Mkhwebane said at a media briefing on Monday that her office was receiving a high volume of complaints‚ many of which could actually be resolved by other bodies.

She said roadshows would be embarked on to educate the public on what type of complaints her office could handle. She then publicised her findings on seven matters she had probed‚ which included Zille's tweet.

Mkhwebane found that "the conduct of the premier constitutes improper conduct" and recommended that the provincial legislature take appropriate action against her.

She said Zille's apology for the tweet could be interpreted as recognition of the negative impact it had on the dignity of a section of South Africans.

Meanwhile‚ the Equality Court case against Zille‚ brought by the BLF‚ also hit a hurdle. The group demanded an apology and explanation from Zille for the tweet.

Asked about the status of the case‚ BLF spokesperson Lindsay Maasdorp said the matter was still with their lawyers. It was last in court a few months ago but was set aside because of legal amendments that still needed to be made.

"That is why we have since written to the Human Rights Commission to seek assistance‚" said Maasdorp.

Constitutional expert Pierre de Vos released an article‚ explaining that Mkhwebane had got it wrong.

De Vos said the report was "so legally misguided that it is difficult to believe that a qualified lawyer wrote it in good faith."

"By issuing a report in which she purports to deal with Zille's tweets‚ but does so in a manner that suggests she has little understanding of her own powers and lacks even a very basic knowledge of the Constitution‚ Mkhwebane has invited the public again to consider whether she is suitable to continue in her current position‚" said De Vos.

"No Public Protector has ever attempted to rule that a member of the executive has breached a constitutional right and there is a good reason for this: the Public Protector does not have the power to make such a ruling as such investigations are beyond the jurisdiction of her office."

Tweeting under #HandsOffMkhwebane‚ BLF leader Andile Mngxitama defended Mkhwebane.

"DA and its partners are openly defending racism and WMC corruption. The attack on the PP is revenge for her findings that ABSA must pay back the money. Now she is being further punished for ruling that the racist Helen Zille must account for racism‚" he said.

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