Eben Etzebeth. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/STEVE HAAG
Eben Etzebeth. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/STEVE HAAG

SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) acting head of legal Buang Jones, who has been shortlisted for the position of deputy public protector, has justified the comments he made about Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth in Langebaan a few months ago.

Jones was asked about his comments during an interview on Tuesday by parliament’s justice and correctional services committee, which has begun interviewing the seven candidates for the deputy public protector position. The term of the current deputy Kevin Malunga ends in December.

Jones told MPs that two legal opinions by senior counsel had exonerated him. They found that there was nothing untoward, harmful or offensive about his comments about Etzebeth, who faces charges of hate speech by the SAHRC in the equality court for making a racial slur in a pub in Langebaan in August. Etzebeth has denied the allegations.

Jones said he was not facing any disciplinary inquiry in relation to his comments.

At a community meeting in Langebaan in October, Jones said that Etzebeth “is used to getting away with murder” and that the SAHRC would make an example of him. The SAHRC investigated his comments and sought legal opinions from senior counsel.

DA justice spokesperson Glynnis Breytenbach asked Jones how these comments align with his belief in the rule of the law and due process. Jones told MPs that his comments were taken out of context. The role of the SAHRC, he said, is very different to that of other chapter nine institutions in that it can litigate and, on institution of proceedings in the equality court, “ceases to be impartial”.

He said his comments were intended to rephrase what he had heard from community members who allege that the police and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had not done anything about the complaints made in the past about the Etzebeth family and friends.

Jones said the SAHRC has a promotional mandate and, as a litigant in the equality court, has a duty to speak vigorously in favour of complainants and not respondents.

Appointment process

The committee will interview the seven candidates on Tuesday and Wednesday. They include Shadrack Nkuna, an advocate and deputy director of public administration investigation at the Public Service Commission; advocate Moshoeshoe Toba, senior manager for legal at Sars; and advocates Noxolo Mbangeni, Lwazi Kubukeli, Puleng Matshelo and Kholeka Gcaleka. One of the shortlisted candidates, Sonwabile Mancotywa, an advocate and former CEO of the National Heritage Council, has withdrawn.

Among the questions MPs posed to candidates was what role they expected to play as deputy public protector and what they would do if Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane did not delegate serious responsibilities to them.

These questions relate to complaints made publicly by Malunga that he had been sidelined by Mkhwebane and had not been given any serious responsibilities.

Nkuna said he would expect the public protector to assign roles to her deputy that are meaningful and have serious responsibilities. He would also expect to be involved in important strategic decisions.

“There is no greater insult to any professional to earn money he did not work for,” Nkuna said. If the public protector failed to assign him serious responsibilities he would escalate the matter to parliament’s justice committee.

Nkuna commented on the “ballooning” cost of litigation incurred by Mkhwebane as every case taken on review in court has been defended by her. His view is that there is no need to defend reports that have been conducted thoroughly, as they would be vindicated by the courts.

Another question concerned the willingness of the candidate to conduct investigations regardless of political affiliations and position in government.

Jones said he had found Mkhwebane’s performance commendable and that, while there were areas of concern, she should be supported. He believed any differences between the public protector and her deputy should be handled internally.

A number of Mkhwebane’s reports have been rejected by the courts and her competence to occupy her position has been questioned. The DA has submitted a proposal to the National Assembly that she be removed from office.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za