South Africa has an active civil society ever ready to safeguard its fundamental freedoms and rights, and this is a great asset in the battle against the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
This was the opinion of President Cyril Ramaphosa who, in his newsletter to the nation on Monday morning, noted that South Africans often take their healthy and robust democracy for granted.
The country counts itself as among the most politically engaged citizenry in the world, he said.
“A poll in 2018 by the Pew Research Center shows South Africans are strongly inclined to take political action about issues they feel most strongly about, such as health care, education, freedom of speech and corruption,” he said.
“The poll confirms much that we already know about ourselves. We enjoy nothing more than robust engagement with our government and among ourselves on the burning issues of the day. We have an active civil society ever ready to safeguard our fundamental freedoms and rights.
“One of the triumphs of our democracy is that every South African believes the Constitution protects them and that the courts are a fair and impartial arbiter of their interests.”
Ramaphosa said that during a recent visit to the Eastern Cape to assess the province’s coronavirus state of readiness, he was asked by a journalist whether he was concerned about the pending litigation challenging certain provisions of the Disaster Management Act.
This law was the basis for all the regulations promulgated under the national state of disaster that was declared to combat Covd-19.
Since the start of this crisis, a number of people have exercised their right to approach the courts – including a number of individuals, religious bodies, political parties, non-governmental organisations and business organisations – against one measure or more of the lockdown provisions they were unhappy with.
“While we would prefer to avoid the need for any legal action against government, we should accept that citizens who are unhappy with whatever action that government has decided on implementing have a right to approach our courts for any form of relief they seek. This is a normal tenet of a constitutional democracy and a perfectly acceptable practice in a country founded on the rule of law,” said Ramaphosa.
“We have checks and balances in place to ensure that every aspect of governance is able to withstand constitutional scrutiny. Where we are found wanting, we will be held to account by our courts and, above all, by our citizens. Besides our courts, our Chapter 9 institutions exist to advance the rights of citizens, as do the bodies tasked with oversight over the law enforcement agencies.
“As I told the journalist, every South African has a right to approach the courts and even I, as president, could never stand in the way of anybody exercising that right.”
Ramaphosa said that the robust and strident critique of a number of aspects of the national response to the pademic, from the data modelling and projections, to the economic effects of the lockdown, to the regulations, would continue.
“As government we have neither called for such critique to be tempered or for it to be silenced.
To the contrary, criticism, where it is constructive, helps us to adapt and to move with agility in response to changing circumstances and conditions. It enriches public debate and gives us all a broader understanding of the issues at play.”
He said that the government relied on scientific, economic and empirical data when it came to making decisions and formulating regulations around our coronavirus response.
“We want all South Africans to be part of this national effort. The voices of ordinary citizens must continue to be heard at a time as critical as this.”
But there was a long way to go, and the pandemic would continue to place an enormous strain on our society and our institutions.
“Even as we gradually open up the economy, the impact on people’s material conditions will be severe. For as long as this is the case, the potential for conflict, discord and dissatisfaction will remain.”
But the decisions made by government were made in good faith and are meant to advance, and not to harm, the interests of South Africans.
“Our foremost priority remains to save lives. Our every decision is informed by the need to advance the rights to life and dignity as set out in our Constitution.”
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