One of the most fascinating things about the current lockdown has been how many in the media have fallen in line with the government, with criticism either being muted or non-existent.
While South Africa has experienced one of the harshest lockdowns in the world, the government has also abrogated many of its democratic responsibilities in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. The deployment of the military and the establishment of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), have been generally accepted, despite loud opposition from some quarters.
What is fascinating is that, had these actions been taken by leaders in the West, many of our commentators would have been frothing at the mouth. If British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had established some sort of command council, bypassing the Cabinet and House of Commons, and Britain’s military and police had killed people for lockdown ‘crimes’, we would be told this proved fascism was on the rise in Britain. When this happens in South Africa, however, we are told instead that President Cyril Ramaphosa is being statesmanlike and leading the country well in the crisis.
To be sure, the initial response to the pandemic made one think that the government, for once, was being efficient and doing the right thing. The initial lockdown and curtailment of civil liberties was widely accepted, but the government’s response has deteriorated since.
After its initial assured response to the pandemic, the government’s reaction has ranged from the criminal (the killings of Collins Khosa and Petrus Miggels, to name but two South Africans who died allegedly as a result of security force actions) to the bizarre (restrictions on what clothes South Africans can buy).
The reaction to the killing of Khosa has been especially chilling. Khosa, along with his brother-in-law, was assaulted by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) on Good Friday. The soldiers were patrolling Alexandra when they walked past Khosa’s residence. They asked him why he was drinking from a glass of alcohol in his yard. When he rightly pointed out that there was no restriction on consuming alcohol on one’s own property during lockdown, the soldiers attacked him and his brother-in-law. Khosa subsequently died from blunt force trauma – he was, in short, beaten to death for the crime of having a glass of beer in his yard. Not one person has yet resigned or been charged with Khosa’s murder. In a country that cared about the people within its borders, somebody would have resigned or been fired over the catastrophe that befell Khosa, and those who knew him.
Heavy-handed security forces
Reading some parts of our media you would think that the biggest threat to South Africa were sullen surfers rather than heavy-handed security forces.
But there is also an existential threat to our democracy in the form of the NCCC. Some will sniff and say that the establishment of the NCCC has been necessary to govern South Africa during this crisis, but that is far from obvious. As Advocate Erin-Dianne Richards has noted, the NCCC is a body which has no parliamentary or other oversight. Said Richards: ‘If there was proper oversight and scrutiny, we would have had a more rational, less damaging lockdown.’
Richards and a colleague, Nazeer Cassim SC, wrote to the Presidency in April asking for clarity on the NCCC and its membership. They were brushed off by Dr Cassius Lubisi, the director-general, who pooh-poohed the duo’s concerns, and said they were endangering the lives of South Africans by questioning the NCCC. Richards and Cassim have not been alone in their opposition to the NCCC, with other lawyers, along with political parties and civil society organisations also questioning the need for the NCCC.
What should also make every liberty-loving South African extremely afraid are two recent articles written by Dr Mukovhe Morris Masutha. Dr Masutha is a manager in the policy unit of the African National Congress (ANC) and is rumoured to have had the ear of former President Jacob Zuma. In the articles, published in News24 and the Mail & Guardian, he argues that the opposition to the lockdown ban by British American Tobacco is some kind of attack on South Africa’s democracy by neo-liberal ghouls. But perhaps the most chilling line, published in both articles, is the following: ‘While others question the legality of the National Command Council, we must perhaps make it a permanent structure responsible for rapid implementation of government’s programme of action.’
One can approach these sentiments in two ways. The more generous interpretation is that they are simply the undemocratic thoughts of someone who happens to work in the ANC policy unit and are nothing to be concerned about. The second, less charitable, interpretation is that this reflects serious thinking within the ANC, and this opinion piece was ‘released into the wild’ to gauge public reaction to its proposals.
All the evidence points to a government that has, in general, botched its response to this crisis and has contempt for democracy and its norms. And, as I mentioned above, if much of what is happening in South Africa was happening in the United States or the United Kingdom we would almost certainly be breathlessly assured that those countries were only a few steps away from becoming full-blown fascist states. But we South Africans are not being warned about the threat posed to our democracy by the NCCC and its unaccountable members. Whisper it, if you must, but perhaps Boris Johnson is held to a higher standard by some South Africans than Cyril Ramaphosa. And that is the real tragedy.