COVID-19 has touched almost every aspect of the social, economic, private and political lives of all South Africans. One such impact, which has wide-spread social implications, has been that the regulations implemented in terms of the Disaster Management Act have greatly increased the powers of the executive branch of government – that is, those entities that carry out and enforce laws.
“There is a lot of behind the scenes and closed-door activity taking place – meetings that the press and the public are not privy to. That tends to undermine our democracy, given the lack of transparency around decision-making,” says Nompumelelo Runji, a political analyst working with Democracy Works Foundation on a project bringing Civil Society Organisations and Provincial Legislatures closer together in the North West, the Northern Cape and Limpopo Provinces.
During the pandemic, the project has been working on identifying how it can collaborate in addressing the impacts of the pandemic. This work has included enhancing dialogue between provincial legislatures and CSOs – and increasing the transparency of decisions that influence the life of the region. This has been sorely needed. According to Runji, even though there are provincial committee meetings, and some of the ministers have been called to answer questions, that fact has not been broadly disseminated.
DWF South Africa Programme Manager Mira Dutschke says it will be particularly important for civil society to keep a careful eye on any attempts to extend the powers granted during the pandemic, to make sure that this does not become the new normal in the functioning of governance.
Section 26 of the Disaster Management Act of 2002 confers primary responsibility in coordinating the management of a national disaster on the national executive. But this does not preclude the responsibilities of local and provincial government. The executive remains accountable to the legislature even in the execution of its authority under the Disaster Management Act, both at the national and provincial levels.
So how have the changes affected our human rights, the media and the political landscape?
Human Rights Violations
Take the use of the South African National Defense Force to enforce the regulations.
Runji argues the approach shows just how serious the executive deems the Coronavirus pandemic to be.
“To ensure that society adheres to the lockdown regulations, the mandates of police have been extended and the National Defense Force has been brought in. Judging by some interactions between members of the Defence Force and communities, this has had a triggering effect. In one instance, the killing of a community member [Collins Khosa] by members of the National Defense Force, his family have gone to court, as well as to the constitutional courts, to ask for a review of the Defence Force’s code of conduct when interacting with civilians.”
Runji says the images of the Defence Force in townships bring up past traumas of the deployment of the Defense Force under apartheid – not to protect lives, but to inflict harm. “Earlier on in the lockdown, we saw young people retaliate against the men and women in uniform. The antagonism was clear in a lot of social media videos of these interactions, as well as members of the Forces actually making people do certain types of undignified things to cement their authority. That undermined the trust in these institutions.”
Dutschke says the experience of police brutality during this time has differed along racial lines in South Africa, as is most often the case. Here too, the role of democratic processes has been important. “For example, the People’s Coalition C-19 has made a submission to national parliament to require oversight and accountability for some of these very severe human rights violations,” she says.
Repression of the Media and Communication
Interestingly, the media – who play a vital role in how people can hold government to account – have been accommodated during this time. From press briefings around the lockdown litigations, to the fact that media has been deemed an essential service during the lockdown, journalists continue to cover negative and positive stories.
“The media’s role in educating the public about the pandemic has been recognised,” says Runji. “There have been some concerns, including when asking the executive to justify certain decisions to the public.”
Has the government created an enabling environment for the undermining of democracy by means of communication?
Runji believes that there has been, in places. “For instance, I think when it comes to the law and regulations, such as what we have been hearing from the Minister of Police, the impression is sometimes created that there’s a license for police and the military to undermine or disregard the rights of civilians. We as civil society are expected to simply obey the police and the military, and not to ask them questions about what regulations they are using and what they’re basing their actions on. It has been difficult to know whether the ministers understand that they are still obliged to adhere to the constitution. And yet sometimes when you hear some of the rhetoric coming out of the National Coronavirus Command Council, it’s almost as if there is belief that there is a suspension of the constitution in some respects and that they do not have to substantiate their decision making because this is an emergency situation.”
Runji argues that society can only hold government to account if they continue to uphold the principle of transparency and accountability. If that fails, then we have a serious problem, because then there is nobody who is going to ensure that the public interest is defended.
“I think what we need to be doing more of is educating people,” she says. “If the government spends more time educating people about what their smoking does and how it interacts with the COVID disease, then they would have a better response.”
Dutschke agrees. “I think what’s interesting is the kind of response that that invokes in people – from rebellion, to disbelief, to complete disregard.”
That being the case, have political parties or individual politicians been seen to undermine democracy or to profit from the crisis? Is there a shift in focus by the state and citizenry?
“The pandemic has given an advantage to the African National Congress, which is at the forefront of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore has airtime and media interaction,” says Runji. “That has had an impact on fair competition between different political parties – who will be top of mind among the electorate, when they go to vote next year? Another concerning element has been the use of food parcels to reward political patronage meaning that some community members don’t receive what they’re supposed to receive, which is their rights as citizens.”
Another related element, says Runji, is procurement processes. “As this is an emergency situation, procurement processes have not been transparent. Tenders have been given to companies that have not been better; tenders have not been publicly advertised; and that has also led to corrupt practices. The COVID-19 pandemic is being used as a way of getting around these processes. If civil society is not vigilant and oversight does not happen, we may need another judicial commission to find out what happens during this period if oversight is not conducted and civil society is not active and vigilant around these issues.”
Lessons for DWF and civil society
The pandemic has had strategic implications for organisations such as DWF during this time, but also beyond it.
“Look at what DWF is already doing to adapt, including online activities. That demonstrate the ability to adapt to a virtual environment,” says Runji. “Something else an organisation like DWF can do is to leverage on relationships that we have at the political level, to ensure that we continue to have access to what’s happening behind the scenes that may not be available to the public.”
Runji says these relationships also enable DWF to speak out for the interests of communities and civil society organisations. “We are able to bring their challenges to the attention of the provincial legislators who we are dealing with, as well as to that of parliament, so that they can ask the right questions of the executive and ensure that that these things are placed on public record.”
Disclaimer: this article is based on extracts from a podcast produced by Mira Dutshke.
About the Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislature Project:
The South African Civil Society Organisations’ Participation in Provincial Legislatures (CSPPL) project seeks to increase levels of Civil Society Organisations (CSO) activity in public participation and oversight at the provincial legislatures in Limpopo, Northern Cape, and North West. The project is implemented by Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) in partnership with Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), with the financial support from the European Union (EU) and WFD for the period from 2018 to 2020. The CSPPL project works with:
- CSOs to enhance their participation in relevant provincial legislative oversight and public participation processes that increase community voice in provincial government;
- MPLs and Portfolio Committee Staff to increase their awareness of the value of public participation and oversight in good governance and strong democracies;
- Both CSOs and MPLs collaboratively to nurture relationships between the legislatures, civil society, and communities to increased engagement and responsiveness on pressing issues.