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The recent report of the Independent Halaal Review Panel (IHRP) on the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) Halaal Trust is a precedent-setting one.
This is because there is no record of Islamic judiciaries anywhere in the world in modern history allowing themselves to be publicly audited on procedural and governance issues. It’s definitely a first for the halaal industry in South Africa, the IHRP said, describing it as a “milestone”.
The Halaal Trust, which operates under the MJC, was in the limelight earlier this year when Orion Cold Storage – a local importer – was caught relabelling non-halaal (impermissible) products as halaal (permissible), with the MJC Halaal Trust identified as having been a halaal certifier of certain of Orion’s imports.
While the Halaal Trust was not involved in the relabelling episode (featured on YouTube), the incident caused outrage in the Muslim community with regards to the process of halaal certification.
This outrage boiled over when the Halaal Trust – patently unable to deal with the media – raised suspicions as a result of its procrastination and then prevarication in the face of some withering interrogation from Deborah Patta of Third Degree.
What further makes the IHRP report unique in the Muslim world is that while the MJC (established in 1946) is not elected by the community, it was the power of the community that forced its hand.
In the South African context, the IHRP report is a constitutional and institutional triumph. It should serve as a warning to any organisation that sets up shop in community interest, and then betrays that interest.
However, the MJC must be given credit for allowing an independent investigation in February this year. This was after concerned community members approached the MJC executive to look at its Halaal Trust’s processes and structures, and to make recommendations.
Its accession to public demand was a welcome break from the MJC tradition of closing ranks in troubled times. For decades the books of MJC Halaal Trust had been taboo, with journalists being chased away by MJC leadership when requesting documents.
The IHRP report – which is less than 60 pages – is admittedly not a massive tome, but it does raise a number of critical issues, the central one being that a halaal ombudsman should be appointed to monitor the burgeoning multimillion-rand local halaal industry.
However, according to Imraahn Ismail-Mukaddam of the National Consumer Forum, the IHRP report falls short of the mark. Despite noble intentions, it doesn’t address the question of multiple regulators (there are four in South Africa). This makes the appointment of an ombudsman problematic due to varying standards applied by these regulators.
Mukaddam feels the report fails to address exactly how halaal costs are determined, and avoids the issue of non-Muslim consumers having to pay the price for halaal goods. Halaal certification is a form of “religious taxation”, he argues.
His biggest criticism of the report is that it ignores the Orion saga, the root cause of the probe, and neglects to recommend disciplinary action against Halaal Trust officials.
While the IHRP report does admit to not being comprehensive – its thrust was procedure – it is nevertheless comprehensive enough to suggest areas of concern, and to make broad recommendations.
What jumps off the pages of the report is that the Halaal Trust, in the face of this crisis, had no mechanism for dealing with the media. The IHRP also alludes to indistinct line-management being a problem in decision-making – and the Halaal Trust’s way of communicating.
The report says: “There is no systematic written delegation-of-authority framework. This results in decisions being either delayed or approved after the fact… compromising governance, accountability and authority.”
This leads to the question of corporate governance in the Halaal Trust being questioned by the IHRP. The Halaal Trust had no rotational policy with regards to trustees, who it said were appointed on an ad hoc basis to the governing body.
The IHRP intimated that there was a fossilisation of command, and a blurring of the edges if not conflict of interests, when it came to executive powers.
The IHRP also noted that there was no database for halaal products, ingredients or judicial opinions on halaal matters. It suggested that this database, together with a list of the Halaal Trust’s clients, be made available on the MJC website for the public.
Of concern to the IHRP was that, as an employer, the Halaal Trust had no HR committee, or risk and audit oversight. Part of the recommendation here was that more halaal inspectors than the current 18 nationwide be employed and trained, and that minimum basic education standards be applied.
The IHRP also recommended that clients of the Halaal Trust should not be allowed to appoint their own in-house inspectors, and that there should be uniform and consistent standards with imports. Imports should be locally certified, and not offshore, as had sometimes controversially been the case.
The IHRP also questioned, without mentioning specific cases, the dubious practices of some wholesalers and retailers in the meat industry to avoid scrutiny on the halaal nature of their products.
With regards to finances, the IHRP deemed the MJC “overly dependent” on monies from the Halaal Trust, and recommended it seek other sources of income.
The IHRP raised questions about institutions associated with the MJC, saying: “There are many institutions associated with the MJC and the Halaal Trust… the financial and contractual arrangements between the Halaal Trust and these institutions are blurred making it difficult to promote good governance and accountability.”
The IHRP concluded that while documentation was being followed in halaal certification, there was scope for “improving documentary control”. It suggested a formal documentary control policy be implemented, and that there should be a comprehensive and standardised manual on halaal procedures.
In conclusion, I’ve already mentioned that the MJC’s agreeing to an independent investigation on its Halaal Trust is a welcome decision.
But what still needs to happen if a true precedent is to be set, is that the Halaal Trust must act upon the IHRP recommendations.
* Morton is a Cape Town writer and journalist.