HUMAN RIGHTS DAY 2021 : THE ONSLAUGHT ON RIGHTS CONTINUES

In theory, South Africa is a democracy with an admirable Constitution. The reality is different, for the Bill of Rights  is violated with impunity.  Our abnormally high rate of violent crime is the most obvious symptom of this disjuncture between the ideal and the real. So, too, is the onslaught on health and land rights through malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, polluted environments, and removals from ancestral land. Most people lack the money for lawyers, so even that avenue to redress when the state regularly fails them, is not an option.  At the heart of the failure of the state to uphold rights lies dysfunctional governance. Gross corruption and financial profligacy is accompanied by a growing culture of secrecy, lack of access to information, and a weak parliament and opposition. The authoritarian hand is revealed by the establishment of an apartheid-reminiscent State Security Council in February 2020.

Authoritarian tendencies were given full rein with the outbreak of Covid-19. The proclaimed State of Disaster was accompanied by militaristic rhetoric and rights infringements having little bearing on necessary protective measures.  One of the new powers the government gave itself has not received enough public scrutiny: Its ability to conduct mass surveillance through access to cell phone-related data.  The stated rationale was to trace networks of people who developed Covid-19, but there is no public information about its usage for that purpose.  The lonely, agonising death at home of 74-year old Sizani Ngubane, after being tested Covid-19 positive, and despite pleas for assistance from her hospitalised son, shows that there was no follow up. What, then, is this information being used for?

We need full information about what is happening with our data, for in recent years the locations of people who are murdered by hit men may be tracked remotely. Hit men have even boasted about it to potential victims.  Location tracking can be done in various ways through documents and devices with minute chips, but cell phones are probably the easiest option if criminals have access to private information held by unethical dealers. Now the legal access to what should be confidential information has also facilitated snooping by the state. Unfortunately, even people in government may have unsavoury connections, as evidenced in political hits.  Enemies of the state may include the very people who are trying to clean it up – anti-corruption campaigners such as Thabiso Zulu who, despite attempts on his life, has been denied protection by the very minister whose job it is to prevent crime. That too many people with information about corruption in government dare not speak out for fear of being killed is understandable, especially given the ease with which they are tracked and executed with impunity. In Italy even investigative journalists may have police protection.

Dealing with this type of crime is the job of state security agencies which are themselves in a serious disarray.  Take, for example, the crucial police crime intelligence component, which has been subject to years of political interference resulting in destructive factionalism, and incompetence and worse, which can neutralise the efforts of members striving to do their jobs professionally.  There were enough policing problems before the political impact of Polokwane, but they paled to insignificance with the appointment of yet another politician, Bheki Cele, as national commissioner.  His tenure, and that of his successor Riah Phiyega, saw an escalation in political interference, incompetence, and corruption.  The present national commissioner, an experienced police member, set in motion a slow, but perceptible, return to professional policing but, once again, the hand of political interference is blatant and destructive. Surely there is a clear conflict of interest if the minister who wants the national commissioner removed is the very person responsible for some of the serious problems the commissioner has tackled?  If the current, overt, attempts to regain complete political control of policing succeed there will be no protection against the untrammelled snooping powers of the government, and the potential consequences for political enemies. 

That it is not only through violent crime that many South Africans risk dying is highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  How can people who hardly have clean water to drink maintain the cleanliness standards to protect them against infection, let alone buy sanitiser if they do not have enough money for food? Instead of ensuring that people had sufficient food and water, and that school feeding schemes continued, too many government departments allowed avaricious officials to steal food parcels and siphon off huge Covid relief funds.  The escalation of malnutrition linked to job losses will leave a marked impact on the health of many, especially children.  Unacceptably high levels of TB and other preventable diseases are linked to the government’s failure, in 25 years, to provide decent housing, sanitation and food security – the very steps which virtually wiped TB off the face of Europe. Sophisticated research facilities may be image-boosting (and career boosting), but prevention is far better than cure, not only for people but for the fiscus.

It is not only poor people whose health rights may be threatened. The government’s autocratic hand is revealed in its roll out of 5G networks without proper consultation.  This technology is extremely controversial; it is subject to vigorous public debate elsewhere. Over 230 scientists from more than forty countries have warned of potentially serious effects of this technology, especially cancer, and have urged that far more, independent, research be carried out before it is introduced.

Threats to the environment, and to people’s land rights, may be interlinked. Since 2019 various pieces of legislation and policy documents relating to mineral resource exploration and mining, and the new Khoisan and Traditional Leaders Act, all reduce transparency about business deals done. When the Expropriation Bill before parliament is linked to this minerals-related policy, it seems likely that the biggest losers will be poor, rural people. The land which sustains them could be expropriated for mining or infrastructure development, rationalised as ‘public interest’ – the interests, of course, being those of multinational companies or local elites.   Already, people living in coal mining areas such as Somkhele, Nongoma and Dannhauser, are suffering a serious onslaught on their rights. The water they and their cattle drink is polluted, including with coal dust, there are high levels of respiratory diseases, and some are in hiding because they risk being killed like anti-mining activist Fikile Ntshangase, if they oppose moving from their land.

With the justice system beset by problems, redress when rights are violated is increasingly difficult, as it needs money to access lawyers and courts.  Mr P,  who was badly abused by the police and hospitalised, has never had the results of his scans and tests, and  a PAIA application for his medical record is being ignored. Unlike the deaths of Life Esidimeni victims, the needless deaths of many hundreds of cancer patients due to gross, well documented, corruption in the KZN Department of Health have been swept under the carpet, with the senior politicians responsible for these deaths continuing to occupy prominent positions in government.   As with so many other land claims, that of the M family was settled irregularly, giving land the family had been associated with since the mid nineteen century to unknown people, and leaving elderly, disabled Mr M broken-hearted. Referral to the Land Claims Court must be done by the Commission, which, having been unable to provide documentation about the settlement, will not do so. Despite damning evidence, and the settlement of two civil claims, there have been no prosecutions for the killings of over thirty people by apartheid-era members of KZN’s Organised Crime unit. Despite the rhetoric, black lives, it seems, still do not matter.