Assessing COVID-19 response measures – South Africa

South Africa recorded its first case of COVID-19 on 5 March 2020. The Government has implemented a wide range of measures in order to deal with this pandemic. This article assesses the ramifications of these measures on rule of law, human rights and freedoms, government rhetoric, political opportunism as well as the humanitarian situation.

  1. Rule of law and emergency measures

The declaration of a state of national disaster brought new laws into play. Section 26 of the Disaster Management Act[1] confers primary responsibility in coordinating the response to and management of a national disaster on the national executive. Local and provincial levels of government continue to play an important role in addressing pressing priorities coordinated through the National Disaster Management Centre.[2] Chapter 3 establishes provincial and municipal Disaster Management Centres, which are in charge of executing emergency relief measurers, but are in practice understandably struggling with this monumental task. Various Civil Society Organisations including Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislatures (CSPPL) programme partners are part of the provincial and municipal Centres which assist with the relief measures.

Provincial Legislature continues to play an important role during this time as their constitutional mandate to remains. The executive, in other words, remains accountable to the legislature even in the execution of its authority both at the national and provincial levels. In reality, despite reports of abuse, violence and desperation, the parliaments and Chapter 9 Institutions of South Africa have been relatively quiet.

2. Rights and freedoms and the repression of human rights

The disaster response naturally includes a broad range of restrictions enshrined in our Constitution. These have been implemented with assistance of the army. The Presidency is accused of having bypassed traditional and established channels of cooperation between the executive and legislative spheres of state in order to secure that deployment.[3]

3. Government rhetoric

Government rhetoric from the presidency has been clear. Confusing messages from the Ministers point to potential weaknesses and politics at play. There have been no public consultations about the details of the lock down restrictions, in particular with regards to items that may be purchased.

Communication on how to keep safe and other information around the pandemic is not reaching far flung communities, whose health care workers and clinic users are living in fear. One can imagine that the messaging of staying home, washing your hands and keeping a safe distance from others would feel like a slap in the face for someone living in informal settlements lacking basic sanitation. Coupled with police and army brutality and continued forced evictions and destruction of property the legitimacy of the democratic structure is in danger of eroding.

4. Political opportunism

Reports of local councillors selling food parcels or distributing them to friends and allies have come to the fore. On a larger scale, the people that gain most from the distraction of the crises are those individuals who were under public and legal scrutiny for their involvement in the State Capture scandal that has robbed state coffers of an estimated R1. 5 trillion Rand during the second term of the Zuma presidency.[4] Civil Society Organisations are working to ensure that progress towards reclaiming whatever of the loot is left and prosecuting the people responsible while the issue does not get swept under the carpet as attention is focussed on immediate survival. In the meantime, former President Jacob Zuma has launched a YouTube channel during the pandemic, trying to build support in the run up to his nascent trial for corruption.

5. The humanitarian situation

Research found that the potential economic impact of lock down might cause 29 times more deaths than the measures aim to prevent.[5] Lock down is virtually impossible for people living in informal settlements. Unemployment and poverty have only been compounded during this crisis leaving people desperate for basic necessities including food and water.

Apart from struggling to access food and basic nutrition vulnerable communities are also struggling to access health care services, medication, professional counselling or helplines. Key populations with chronic illnesses and/ or disabilities struggle to gain access to vital medications, assistive devices, counselling and other services. CSO partners reported a particular need for services address at people living in abusive relationships, unable to access any safety nets that may have existed prior to the lock down. Where people could previously go out and for assistance and food they are no longer able to. Vulnerable groups reported living under constant fear for their future and are rendered desperate.

[1] Disaster Management Act of 2002[1] the Act http://www.cogta.gov.za/cgta_2016/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/DISASTER-MANAGEMENT-ACT.pdf The Disaster Management Act of 2002[1] (the Act) defines a disaster as a “progressive or sudden, widespread or localised, natural or human-caused occurrence which causes or threatens to cause death, injury or disease; damage to property, infrastructure or the environment; or disruption of the life of a community; and is of a magnitude that exceeds the ability of those affected by the disaster to cope with its effects using their own resources.”

[2] N Runji “Conducting Oversight and promoting public participation during the Covid-19 Pandemic”  Democracy Works Foundation 17 April 2020 https://democracyworks.org.za/conducting-oversight-and-promoting-public-participation-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[3] M Merten “The path of Rampahosa’s letter for major SANDF employment raises serious concerns around separation of powers” Daily Maverick 23 April 2020 https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-23-the-path-of-ramaphosas-letter-for-major-sandf-deployment-raises-serious-concerns-around-separation-of-powers/

[4] M Merten “State Capture wipes out a third of SA’s 4.9 trillion GDP – never mind lost trust, confidence and opportunity” Daily Maverick 1 March 2019 https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-03-01-state-capture-wipes-out-third-of-sas-r4-9-trillion-gdp-never-mind-lost-trust-confidence-opportunity/

[5] T Bell “Actuaries warn Ramaphosa of a ‘humanitarian disaster to dwarf Covid-19′ if restrictive lockdown is not lifted” Daily Maverick 5 May 2020 https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-05-actuaries-warn-ramaphosa-of-a-humanitarian-disaster-to-dwarf-covid-19-if-restrictive-lockdown-is-not-lifted/

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