SOUTH AFRICA 2020 : COVID-19, HUNGER, LAWLESSNESS, AND THE EROSION OF DEMOCRACY

While the Covid-19 pandemic occupied centre-stage in 2020, a video clip circulating at Christmastide pointed to more deep-seated problems which will persist when the threat of the Coronavirus fades.  This clip, showing a pantechnicon gridlocked on a national road being looted of its cargo of baked beans by hordes of residents of nearby areas, is emblematic of the potent destabilising forces of hunger and lawlessness gripping our country. While the National Coronavirus Command Council increased government controls, its increasingly authoritarian inclinations are evident in 2020 legislation increasing powers of state organs and decreasing consultation and transparency. In March, a National Security Council – sounding ominously like apartheid’s State Security Council – was gazetted into existence, despite the government having managed quite well without one for twenty-five years.  The cherry on its authoritarian top was the signing into law of the Khoisan and Traditional Leaders Act, and the passing of the Traditional Courts Bill, which go even further than apartheid in reinforcing the feudal status of rural black people.

Covid-19 has exposed our social fault lines.  The pandemic targets rich and poor alike, but it is the millions of immune-compromised, malnourished people, many without clean water, who are most vulnerable. We are rightly concerned about the mounting Covid death toll (currently a minimum of 27 568 );  that TB claimed 63 000 lives in 2018 barely raises an eyebrow. Why have we not made strides in eradicating it by providing decent housing, water, sanitation, and nutrition?  Why is the Department of Health not leading a government drive to prevent TB?   Adequate nutrition should be integral to primary health care, but lockdown has seen already high levels of malnutrition soar. Why were school feeding schemes not operating during lockdown? What type of employment will youths stunted physically and mentally by malnutrition find? Poverty does not necessarily lead to crime, but it provides a large pool of people desperate for jobs in a crime-ridden society.

Crime, including Cash-in-Transit, taxi and farm murders, gender-based violence, and opportunistic theft, has continued unabated.  Like some taxi industry players who provide career openings for hit men, organised crime networks – largely untouched, and empowered by tobacco and liquor bans – offer get-rich-quick jobs to poor, vulnerable youths.  We have long been a leader in protest action, especially around the lack of service delivery, 2020 has seen a spate of apparently well organised, extremely violent protest – mobs burning cars and trucks, for example – some of it linked to sinister ‘business forums’ , Recently an angry mob attacked an ambulance sent to collect a patient in the KZN Midlands, and paramedics fortunately escaped with their lives.  Like damage to infrastructure, including allegedly by ‘sabotage’, this lawlessness is harming people, and causing economic damage our debt-ridden country cannot afford.

Its roots lie in extremely bad governance which, instead of empowering the historically disadvantaged, has, with impunity, looted money destined for services, and uses them as voting fodder with promises of patronage that usually do not materialise.  The acute sense of deprivation all too often erupts in protest – but the disempowered may also be used in protest orchestrated by others for their own selfish gains.  In this, the most unequal society in the world, we ignore this growing lawlessness, and its root causes, at our own peril.

Amidst the diversion of Covid-19 the government has introduced a raft of questionable legislation and policy documents. It started with policy about amending the Constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation, ending the year by inviting comment on the bill about it ( increasingly, comment is not even acknowledged). The public should not be fooled by rhetoric about redress for the disadvantaged as it is state departments which continue to deprive poor people of land, through the corruption-riddled Land Claims Commission, and complicity with the Ingonyama Trust, traditional leaders, and mining companies. Their arrogance includes ignoring court orders and even Concourt judgments.

Two related documents, Amendments to Mineral and Petroleum Resources Regulations, and the Draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill leave no doubt about the government’s explicit, climate-unfriendly focus on petroleum-related mining. From these documents transparency and consultation will be minimal and communities most affected may not even know about what is proposed. The interests of the Applicants for mining rights appear paramount.  Conveniently, the recently gazetted Khoisan and Traditional Leaders Act will allow traditional leaders to enter into agreements with businesses, including mining, whether or not their ‘subjects’ want it.  What has been happening in the Somkhele (Mtubatuba) and Zululand Anthracite Colliery (Nongoma) mining areas makes the government’s plans clear : It will have no compunction in allowing the removal of people from their ancestral homes, and bases of subsistence, with all the attendant consequences for increased hunger.

The government is pushing ahead with 5G rollout without any meaningful consultation, despite over 230 scientists from more than forty countries having lobbied the European Union to halt any roll out pending further comprehensive research, and warning about its carcinogenic potential.  The draft policy document stipulates that property owners do not have the right to refuse entry to people sent to install neighbourhood infrastructure. Then there is the Victims Support Services Bill which, despite some praiseworthy aims, gives a Department not known for efficiency – Social Development – increased powers over NPOs (although the wording is so bad some of its basic provisions are obscure).  Lastly, The Police Services Amendment Bill, needs a complete revamp to deal with myriad problems, including the increased power it gives to the Minister. For twenty-five years the President has had the power to order the deployment of the Public Order Police, but this bill gives that power to the Minister. This legislation is incapable of dealing with SAPS corruption, which is primarily the job of The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). It is the legislation relating to IPID needs urgent change, since currently the Directorate is remotely controlled by the same Minister who is responsible for policing, so it cannot function independently, as international norms demand.

The legislation giving ministers too many powers in appointing people to bodies, including Boards of SOEs, needs amending. The Minister of Health, for example, has vast powers to appoint to important bodies which should have complete independence, such as the Health Ombudsman and the Registrar of the Health Professions Council. For a democracy to function properly, power should be far more diffuse, and not concentrated in relatively few hands whose decisions are motivated by party politics. This problem is exacerbated by the virtual demise of professionalism, which has been tainted, or even captured, by politics, including through trade union alliances.     Parliament is increasingly appearing a mere rubber stamp, with insufficient informed debate about legislation, and relatively few opposition party members making constructive contributions.

In conclusion, this culture of increasing lawlessness and its myriad of causal factors must be addressed urgently, if it is not to spiral further out of control. Related to it is the appalling state of governance and the erosion of democracy. We all need to wake up and do something about it. Civil society forums can play an important role, but we must also focus on politicians of all parties who are elected to office.  Close monitoring of parliament, legislative assemblies, and local government councils is essential, as is unremitting pressure on representatives of all parties to do the work they are now failing to do to earn their taxpayer funded salaries and perks. Our struggle for accountability and transparency in governance must be escalated since we are still a long way from being a truly democratic state.