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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


ROETS, Ernst  and  MALAN, Koos. A concise assessment of the (mal)performance of the section 185 Commission in relation to the rights of communities. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2019, vol.59, n.3, pp.413-435. ISSN 2224-7912.

Section 185 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 provides for the establishment of a Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. The notion of the rights of communities in contrast to the rights of individuals (belonging to such communities) is central to the mandate of the Commission. Thus the very first of the objects of the Commission under section 185(1)(a) is to promote respect for the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities. The remainder of section 185 is permeated with the notion of the rights of communities. The same obtains for the legislative instrument, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities Act, 24 of 2002, that gives further effect to the relevant constitutional provisions namely, most notably in section 4 and section 5(g) and (i) of the Act. However, the prevalent consensus is that the Commission has been unsuccessful in discharging its responsibilities in relation to community rights. The primary reason is that the Commission has failed to grasp the notion of the rights of communities, thus causing it to be incapable of giving effect to them. This failure is particularly serious especially in view of convincing theoretical arguments in favour of collective rights. It has for example been shown that the existence and recognition of communities are not only essential for cultural, language and religious rights but also for seemingly unequivocal individual rights such as the right to freedom of association and expression. These rights can be exercised only within a communal setting. This point has been demonstrated convincingly by scholars such as Denise Réaume, Rodolfo Stavenhagen and Helen O'Nions and many others. Moreover, there are important developments in international law supporting the recognition of the rights of communities. Three points are significant in this regard. Firstly, although article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is framed in individual-rights terms, the International Commission of Human Rights which oversees the Covenant is increasingly interpreting article 27 in collective terms. This is apparent from the Committee's General Comment 23 and its requiring of states to take positive action towards the protection of the communities individuals belong to as opposed to individual members only. Secondly, there is the Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Various provisions of this Resolution of the United Nations also require positive action of state governments to protect these communities and not only individual members, for example that "(S)tates shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity." Thirdly, there is the United Nations Development Report of 2004, which represents a major step forward in the protection of (minority) cultural communities. The report contains a comprehensive position on the way in which states should organise themselves in order to safeguard communities effectively, including minority communities. Cultural freedom is the guiding principle of the report. Accordingly, policies directed towards the achievement of homogenisation of culturally diverse societies are emphatically condemned while majoritarianism is rejected. The Report highlights the link between human development and cultural freedom, stating that "(c)ultural liberty is central to the capability of people to live as they would like. The advance of cultural liberty must be a central aspect of human development, and this requires going beyond social, political and economic opportunities since they do not guarantee cultural liberty." Accordingly, "(s)tates need to recognize cultural differences in their constitutions, their laws and their institutions. They also need to formulate policies to ensure that the interests of particular groups - whether minorities or historically marginalised majorities - are not ignored or overridden by the majority or by dominant groups." Organs of state in South Africa, including the Commission, ought not to ignore these important developments. Unfortunately this seems precisely what the Commission has been doing. That is the reason for the Commission's failure thus far. It will only be able to revive itself once it duly accounts for the notion of the collective legal claims of communities which is the prerequisite for enabling it to give effect to its constitutional and legislative mandate.

Keywords : Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural; Religious and Linguistic Communities; Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural; Religious and Linguistic Communities Act; Collective rights; Rights of communities [as opposed to individual rights]; International Committee of Human Rights; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities); UN Development Report of 2004; titled Cultural liberty in today's diverse world; General Comment 23 [of the International Committee of Human Rights].

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