The civil rights organisation AfriForum has voiced its concern that the South African government is using the COVID-19 pandemic to promote its ideologies and to severely violate citizens’ rights. This comes after several disturbing incidents involving peace officers and law enforcement officers (including an attempt to forcefully arrest a four year old child) and statements by the president and other politicians. AfriForum will therefore place renewed focus on current local campaigns aimed at the protection of the rights of citizens and minorities and will launch an international lobbying campaign.
AfriForum is currently formulating a report on the South African government’s handling of the pandemic, which will be submitted to the United Nations (UN). The UN recently expressed its concern over the “toxic” enforcement of lockdown regulations. In April, Georgette Gandon, the UN’s Director of Field Operations, highlighted the “highly militarised” law enforcement response in South Africa, including the use of whips and rubber bullets.
The latest incident of unreasonable and arbitrary conduct by peace officers happened in Ballito yesterday. Video footage currently circulating on social media shows municipal peace officers of the KwaDukuza Municipality attempting to arrest a four year old child for allegedly not adhering to COVID-19 regulations.
According to AfriForum there are several other factors that are cause for concern, such as:
- People are being stopped and searched at road blocks by members of the SAPS and Defence Force who are armed with automatic rifles.
- The SANDF is patrolling areas with assault rifles and live ammunition in an effort to support police in maintaining law and order.
- The president, as well as some ministers such as Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Social Development, are addressing the media and public in military outfits.
- Bheki Cele, the Minister of Police, threatens people that lockdown rules will be tightened if the citizenry doesn’t obey regulations, and proposes a total ban on alcohol.
- Neighbourhood and farm watches aren’t allowed to patrol and help protect communities – therefore putting people’s safety squarely in the hands of the state.
- People are being held in forced quarantine in camps that don’t comply to the World Health Organisation’s standards or the standards specified by South Africa’s own regulations. (Last week AfriForum won a court case where the court ruled that one such camp, the Zithabeseni quarantine camp, should be closed down and residents released.)
- AfriForum and the union Solidarity are currently involved in legal action against the Departments of Tourism and of Small Business Development who are prescribing BEE measures as a prerequisite for state aid during the pandemic.
- Peace officers and other law enforcement bodies are arresting members of the public for minor violations of the lockdown regulations, like a Cape Town family who was arrested after their toddler ran from a sidewalk onto the beach.
- Politicians are making statements advocating regulations that would make the state the only entity allowed to distribute food to vulnerable communities.
- The president announced the release of 19 000 prisoners, despite the current conditions which amongst others, prevents people from working and earning an income.
“It seems as if serving the interests of the citizenry isn’t the priority of the South African government during this time of crisis. For instance, look at the Minister of Police who is seemingly more concerned over the selling of cigarettes and alcohol than gang violence and rape. AfriForum will not allow government to exploit this crisis to quash the rights of minorities. We will continue with the online training of our neighbourhood and farm watches to ensure people are vigilant to protect themselves from danger. AfriForum’s safety and community structures are also helping with the distribution of food to vulnerable people in our communities, despite efforts by the government to centralise the distribution of food,” says Ian Cameron, AfriForum’s Head of Community Safety.
“When the crisis was first announced, the government’s statements were focused on protecting people against the virus. As the lockdown progressed it has however evolved into statements about the transformation of the economy and equality. It is clear that the government sees the virus as an opportunity to advocate its own ideological goals of aggressive state centralisation and racial discrimination. This type of conduct isn’t reconcilable with a state that claims to be built on principles of freedom, fairness and the law. It is a violation of the dignity and most basic freedoms people have,” says Ernst Roets, AfriForum’s Head of Policy and Action.