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.’

Undemocratic thoughts

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.

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Marius Roodt
Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.


  1. Do you any reason why the two advocates withdrew from taking on the government as I have just read (not sure if it is fake news that members of FITA have been raided by the police? It is all pointing to intimidation by anyone wanting to hold the government accountable.

  2. The press in South Africa is a disgrace to say the least.
    The do a great disservice to the citizen. The new is completely controlled or could I say captured and hardly independent. Only one side of an issue is presented and they are terrified of criticizing the Government or their policies. I think the BEE, AA and EE has something to do with it. Every new paper and news channel is now being politically correct.
    The only follow orders from “someone”, towing the line. There are few real journalists left who report without fear or favor, We saw the recent treatment of Xoli Mngambi and Jane Dutton at ENCA- forced to tow the line for criticizing the Government minister of the cigarette ban. Forced to apologise.
    The BCCSA is a stooge of government. The South African National Editors’ Forum appears to be another lap dog.

  3. It is highly doubtful that the nccc (it does not deserve capital letters) will be disbanded – and the ‘no more elections’ scenario is more real than many realise. As for the press coverage – less said the better! The most saddest tragedy is that not one anc politician or functionary will read what citizens are saying…if they do it is just to compile a list for further “action”.

  4. Few people want to admit it, but this country is on a knife edge. The politicians have tasted more power and, like the cocaine addict, want more. These stalinists we have at the head of our government shiver with anticipation as they continue to overreach. Unfortunately, South Africans really do have their heads in the sand. In a healthy democracy, Mukovhe Morris Masutha, should be considered an enemy of the people. That may sound very much like something a stalinist like him would have said, but a shred of democracy in a country ruled by potential crackpot despots should be cherished and guarded with all effort.

  5. During the Anglo-Boer war (1899 – 1902) England applied the “Scorched Earth” policy. They won the war but destroyed a country in the process, and a deep-seated hatred of everything English was created in South Africa.
    This so-called government of ours seems to be on the same path right now. Unfortunately the end result will be that there is nothing left of our economy and what will “government” have to govern then? A country stripped of everything and a very angry, disgruntled population is probably the most dangerous situation that any government could face!
    Our “so-called” free press/media definitely also needs to wake up to the current situation as it certainly seems as though they are afraid of retribution in case of any criticism of government. As far as I know freedom of speech is protected in our Constitution, but the media seems to be too scared to say anything or to fight for this basic right!

  6. Historian David Starkey in an interview that can be seen on YouTube (Britain’s response to Covid-19 will have desvatating effects) noted an unintended consequence of the UK lockdown that I couldn’t help feeling was precisely the intented effect of the ANC’s lockdown which is to reduce the independece of the middle classes and make more of us dependent on the state. This was a crisis perfectly suited to the ANC’s agenda that Ramaphosa keeps referring to quite openly. How media such as the Daily Maverick could misinterpret those statements about radical changes to the economy as a sign of a change in direction by the ANC is mind boggling. Even Ramaphosa’s typical Doublespeak left no doubt as to his meaning.

  7. On point.Imagine the criticism from the woke media in the US and Britain warning of the inexorable slide to fascism.Here in SA the tacit acceptance of authoritarianism with barely a whimper.Great article with an apt warning.

  8. CR get virus * & dies or is assassinated on his a.m. walk.
    Deputy President DD, on the fence / criminal, David Mabuza takes over.
    OR, CR loses to JZ faction @ next election….. …..this is when we will poop in our pants!
    Thus action must be taken NOW !!!!!
    * (from 2 white women who “love” him and want their picture with him ((putting him in a difficult social distancing position))


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