Trevor Manuel: Let’s not forsake our Constitution because of the lockdown

SA has another glorious opportunity to honour Madiba’s call, but tolerance of abusive security force behaviour will jeopardise this

During the state of emergency in 1986, I was detained at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl in the Western Cape, along with thousands of other young men.

It was the same trend across the country, with thousands of women, men and even children held without probable cause.

A fellow detainee, a taxi driver from Zwelethemba township in Worcester, was angry about his detention.

He had been stopped at a road block while driving along the N1 from Paarl.

He was issued with a hefty fine because he had a broken brake light, which he found puzzling.

He returned home and, together with a friend, they checked the brake light and confirmed that it was indeed working.

Resolute, the taxi driver returned to the road block to point out the injustice to the police officers.

He was detained on the spot for being an agitator.

After 14 days, the minister of law and order ordered that he be detained until the end of the state of emergency.

He was particularly angry because he had avoided the “comrades”, but had still ended up in prison and become one of “them”.

Six months later, he was released.

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world
Nelson Mandela

The nostalgia of this injustice is palpable. When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first democratically elected president on May 10 1994, he spoke of a break from the oppression and humiliation described above.

He said: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”

I write this 26 years later – to the day of that great day in our history – and 24 years after the adoption of our great Constitution.

In the spirit of this statement, the Constitution was crafted to create a civilian oversight on the functioning of the SA Police Service (SAPS) and parliamentary oversight of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

In fact, the SA Police Service Act creates the civilian oversight that says, among other things: “The secretariat shall promote democratic accountability and transparency in the service.”

The Constitution and the Defence Act make it abundantly clear that the SANDF is accountable to Parliament for civil control and oversight.

The tragedy of the behaviour of our security services in implementing the Covid-19 coronavirus national lockdown regulations is that their conduct has so often gone against the letter and spirit of our Constitution.

The daily reports of abusive behaviour against civilians and the absence of any civilian oversight are two of its features.

It was not pointed out to the SANDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Lindile Yam, that his statements were unconstitutional when he told Parliament: “You are not our clients. We are not the police. We take instructions from the commander in chief.”

Some two weeks earlier, a member of Parliament’s joint standing committee on defence insisted that there was nothing untoward about the behaviour of members of the SANDF because the regulations under the Disaster Management Act suspended the Bill of Rights.

If indeed it is correct that the soldiers who allegedly bludgeoned Collins Khoza to death in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg, have not been suspended, then this is a travesty of every aspect of our Constitution

It is a profound tragedy when MPs show such disregard for the Constitution and are so unfamiliar with their oversight responsibilities.

If indeed it is correct that the soldiers who allegedly bludgeoned Collins Khoza to death in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg, have not been suspended, then this is a travesty of every aspect of our Constitution.

There are daily reports of the abuse of power by the security forces, including assaults with sjamboks; the arrest of citizens for the pettiest of infractions; the payment of admission of guilt fines by people desperate to get out of custody; and a long list of instances of misbehaviour.

I have not heard senior police and army officers, ministers or the president call out this behaviour.

Forsaking our Constitution, especially now, is unfortunate.

UN secretary-general António Guterres has listed South Africa among a number of rogue states abusing people’s rights during the lockdowns.

Mandela’s profound words that “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another … ” appear forgotten, and South Africa is on the list of skunk states.

The film version of Les Misérables that was released last year, which I recently watched, is so unbelievably poignant that it ought to be prescribed for every decision-maker, be they a minister, an MP or an officer in the army or police service.

It provides a deep understanding of what happens when police officers and soldiers are permitted to act like brutes who face no consequences.

In fact, May 10 1994 was so important because it palpably created a sense of statehood for all. It was the inauguration of our president.

There was the overflight by the SA Air Force formations and the SANDF pledging allegiance to a head of state whom we could identify with.

We actually have an opportunity for another glorious moment
Trevor Manuel

Suddenly, all the trauma and sacrifices that so many had lived through – the loss of lives, the years in exile, the many nights in prison – appeared to have been worth it.

A new nation was born. We actually have an opportunity for another glorious moment.

In spite of complaints about the lockdown, many people and businesses across the spectrum are responding positively with donations to the Solidarity Relief Fund.

President Cyril Ramaphosa used his Freedom Day message to appeal for a new social compact.

I believe we have entered a social compact based on humanity and compassion.

These are acts that can and will be undermined by behaviour that is devoid of caring.

My plea to our political decision-makers is that their voices be heard so that we continue to hold up Madiba’s words and face the future together.

We cannot give up on the values of our Constitution because of the lockdown.

Manuel is one of SA’s former finance ministers

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