Human Rights Month 2021: black lives do not matter in South Africa

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Even in this dawn of democracy, it seems black lives still don't matter. Picture: iStock
Even in this dawn of democracy, it seems black lives still don't matter. Picture: iStock


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 cellphone-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.

Read: Goverment plans to record all babies’ biometrics raises privacy fears

The lonely, agonising death at home of 72-year-old Sizani Ngubane, after having tested positive for Covid-19, 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 cellphones 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 state of serious disarray. Take, for example, the crucial police crime intelligence component, which has been subjected to years of political interference, resulting in destructive factionalism, incompetence and worse, which can neutralise the efforts of members striving to do their jobs professionally.

Read: SSA’s Project Veza’s credibility at stake as testimonies at Zondo commission loom

There were enough policing problems before the political impact of the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane in 2007, but they paled into insignificance with the appointment of yet another politician, Bheki Cele, as national police commissioner. His tenure, and that of his successor, Riah Phiyega, saw an escalation in political interference, incompetence and corruption.

The present commissioner, General Khehla Sitole, 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 was highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. How can people who hardly have clean water to drink maintain the standard of cleanliness required 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 that 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 40 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.

Read: High court ruling will delay internet access for years - experts

Threats to the environment and to people’s land rights may be linked. Since 2019 various pieces of legislation and policy documents relating to mineral resource exploration and mining, and the new Khoisan and Traditional Leaders Act, have reduced 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 that 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 in KwaZulu-Natal, 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 antimining activist Fikile Ntshangase, because they do not want to move from their land.

Read: The rogue cop and his hitmen

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, badly abused by the police and hospitalised, has never had the results of his scans and tests, and an application for his medical record, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, is being ignored. Unlike the families of Life Esidimeni victims, the deaths of hundreds of cancer patients due to gross, well-documented corruption in the KwaZulu-Natal department of health have been swept under the carpet, with the 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, but they have been told that referral to the Land Claims Court must be done by the commission, which will not do so. Despite damning evidence, and the settlement of two civil claims, there have been no prosecutions for the killings of about 30 people by members of KwaZulu-Natal’s apartheid-rooted organised crime unit.

Despite the rhetoric, black lives, it seems, still do not matter.

De Haas is an honorary research associate in the School of Law, UKZN


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