Leon Wessels: Covid-19 exposes that we are not the equal, caring society we had anticipated

2020-05-10 06:00
The National Command Council updates the media. (GCIS)

The National Command Council updates the media. (GCIS) (GCIS)

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Covid-19 creates an opportunity to acknowledge the dignity of everyone. This unequal society was not created overnight; inequality will not be dislodged overnight either, writes Leon Wessels.


South Africa now needs leadership grounded in partnership.

This can only be achieved if the citizens trust their leaders.

President Cyril Ramaphosa held the nation in the palm of his hand when he explained what was needed to overpower Covid-19. Everyone was ready to do his bidding.

It did not take long for overzealous Cabinet ministers to ravage this trust. They oozed arrogance. They sounded like sergeant majors on the military parade field.

Is that the spirit of the National Command Council? Barking orders?

They lost the plot (had they ever mastered it?) that constitutional rights can only be impaired if there was no other option available. The art of democracy is explaining, persuading and cajoling those who have to toe the line.

The majority party opens the doors to power but once you occupy the seats of power you are duty-bound to govern in the interest of everyone.

The rule of law is the cornerstone of a constitutional democracy.

It is impossible to govern a country through the courts. They don't have an army to enforce their judgments, they don't draft the budget, nor are they responsible for the delivery of services to communities.

Their function is to determine whether the powerful, the executive and the legislature, discharge their duties within the ambit of the Constitution.

Vague, conflicting Covid-19 regulations create opportunities to do battle in the courts. This was certainly not the outcome the president or the nation had desired.

Undermining the trust of constitutional institutions

Service delivery protests (long before Covid-19) signified that the greatest constitutional threats were politicians who abuse their power and feather their own nests.

Leon Wessels (right) and Mac Maharaj at Constiution Hill...they were on different sides during the transition period. (Pieter du Toit.)

Corrupt public servants and poor policy decisions undermine the trust in constitutional institutions. This distrust unfortunately still exists.

The Constitution was drafted in the shadow of the apartheid years.

Negotiators were in agreement that we aspire to a radically different society - open, transparent, responsive and caring for the poor and indigent.

Covid-19 did not change this.

From the outset, the ANC government did not take kindly to being told how to discharge their responsibilities.

Criticism voiced by a variety of civil society organisations and negative South African Human Rights Commission reports on the slow pace of the realisation of socio-economic rights, were always frowned upon.

We are not where we had hoped to be - we are not the equal and caring society we had anticipated. Covid-19 has exposed this truism to our shame.

To whom do you wish to entrust your concerns about poverty - politicians or judges?

That was the question which had to be answered during the constitutional negotiations - should socio-economic rights be included in the Bill of justiciable Rights, that is, rights, which the courts would supervise?

Politicians have a tendency to pretend to be listening to political debates without really doing so - they are most often considering their reply.

Assured of a fair hearing in court

Judges generally listen to what is being said.

In a court of law, what is being said is usually more important than how it is said.

In spite of being assured of a fair hearing in a court on matters related to socio-economic issues, it costs a small fortune to fight your way through the court system, right up to the Constitutional Court, if required.

To plead cases of poverty in this manner is extremely expensive and unaffordable for most people.

Politicians, on the other hand, control the state's financial coffers. Relief from poverty has to come from that source. In terms of old political dogma, judges must keep their hands out of these coffers.

It is the prerogative of the government to compile a country's budget and to determine the priorities within that budget. The politicians also have to implement the judgments handed down by the courts.

Politicians should care for the poor, but judges should determine that it is done in a reasonable manner. Covid-19 has also not changed this.

We live in a stunningly beautiful country. Your vantage point, however, determines whether you notice this beauty or not.

There are circumstances in which your main concern is to survive, to breathe fresh air; where hunger pangs and the squalor around you weigh heavily on your mind.

The beautiful skyline and scenery are of little value because your priorities are feeding and clothing your children.

We still struggle to understand the great divides in our society: the rural and the urban, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the housed and the homeless, those with fresh water in abundance and those without clean water.

Covid-19 has added a new dimension to all of this: those who have access to computers and those who can't afford the opportunities offered by modern technology.

Shirking our responsibility

Not every South African you meet is a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The late Hugh Masekela, internationally-renowned jazz personality, once talked to a small circle of friends in Krugersdorp and expressed his surprise that South Africans - black and white - still do not know how to talk to one another.

Every one is very apologetic: our children will get it right because they don't have the barriers we had to contend with; children now go to school together and have opportunities to mix that we never had, are the excuses tendered.

To me, this is nothing but shirking our responsibility, coming from a generation that has to set the pace of bridging the divides of the past.

To the contrary - they are passive and, in a very subtle way (but sometimes not so subtle), instill their old fears and prejudices in their children.

Although not all young people necessarily know the injustices of apartheid from own experience or the great moments of apartheid, the legacy of apartheid has left them with deep scars and major obstacles.

Leon Wessels: "Not every South African you meet is a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize." (Media24 Archives.)

And nowhere is it as clear as in the gap between those who have and those who have nothing. Those who have access to modern technology to save this academic year and those who don't.

Now, years after democracy, there are segments in our society where people are still very far apart. Some jump up and down when you dare to suggest we still live in two worlds.

"You keep harping on the past and do not allow us to move forward," they say.

The most important international human rights documents acknowledge and define human dignity as an inalienable and unassailable right.

Different constitutions also describe human dignity as the key to a human rights dispensation. Human dignity can never be suspended, not even under Covid-19 regulations.

Therefore, no crisis in a country can be so great that someone's dignity is taken away or completely ignored.

Covid-19 creates an opportunity to acknowledge the dignity of every one. This unequal society was not created overnight; inequality will not be dislodged overnight either.

Can we deal with it beyond Covid-19?

What South Africa now needs is a government across party lines and in partnership with the citizens to ensure that all the voices are heard when the regulations and policies are crafted.

Covid-19 implores us to start afresh - mending fences between citizens and building bridges across the old divides.

- Leon Wessels is a former Cabinet minister, deputy chairperson of the Constituent Assembly, South African Human Rights Commissioner and author of Encountering Apartheid’s Ghosts – from Krugersdorp to Constitution Hill.

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  government  |  pandemic  |  governance  |  democracy
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