South Africa has been in a lockdown for nearly two years and citizens are growing frustrated with the mechanisms implemented by the state. President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act (DMA) in March 2020.
Throughout the pandemic, information on who sits on the structures charged with overseeing and advising on the application of Covid-19 regulations has not been publicised. The government has stated that all members of the Cabinet are members of the national coronavirus command council (NCCC), but there are no means to verify this. These bodies function in an opaque and unaccountable manner.
Rule of law and the economy
As an advisory body, the NCCC does not have any constitutional or legislative authority and, as clarified by the president’s spokesperson, this body works parallel to the national joint operational and intelligence structure, charged with overseeing and advising on the application of the regulations. The DMA has allowed the creation of bodies that are not required to account publicly or to Parliament – nor are they established in terms of any law.
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Over the last year the government has also barred meaningful accountability checks from Parliament and attempted to criminalise political gatherings and free speech, such as the ban on what the state would define as sharing misinformation regarding Covid-19. One could, at a big stretch, justify these actions all in the name of protecting people. However, there has been no indication as to what role/position these bodies will play post-Covid-19.
The DMA has contributed to the creation of mandatory mask wearing and curfews. Some people believe the DMA may allow for mandatory vaccinations. Should South African lockdowns end – in the event that the government would like to implement similar policy – they would now be required to atone in Parliament. Thus far, Parliament has been unable to interrogate such policies and have been restricted to making use of the judiciary.
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Under the strict lockdowns, the unemployment rate grew from 29% in 2019 to 35% in 2021. Lockdown has destroyed the South African economy, preventing the realisation of economic prosperity. In other countries, such as Britain and Australia, the use of lockdowns has been based on the threat of the coronavirus, whereas South Africa has made use of the lockdown uninterruptedly without consideration for the broader socioeconomic landscape. This is demonstrated by the closing of schools, despite learners’ dependence on feeding programmes, and the potential for poorer educational outcomes, which, in turn, affect the employment rate.
Is it possible to end the lockdown?
In short, yes. This is dependent on the willingness of the government. It should be noted that ending the lockdown would be a hard reset back to “normality”. Given that South Africa has established infrastructure to live within a Covid-19 world, will there be sufficient infrastructure in the form of support from existing institutions and the private sector to make a return to as much normality as possible? The return to regularity would result in the end of the state of disaster. Mask mandates, curfews and mandatory vaccines would require parliamentary approval – a new balancing act would emerge. All government policy, including regarding Covid-19, would require parliamentary approval and government would need to answer for their conduct.
This inquiry would be subject to the approval of a motion in Parliament by members.
Given the numerous court cases presented during the lockdown, such as the DA’s case against Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to unban hairdressers, the likelihood of an inquiry is probable. An inquiry would include one into the R460 million AngloGold Ashanti hospital that was built in response to Covid-19, but which was only occupied from June 2021.
There is currently a stable government in place; the misuse of state power can be a target under such a provision. The state of disaster should become open to review every three months beyond a government-appointed council. This could be in the form of an ad-hoc external and transparent committee that could review the use of a state of disaster.
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Government policy has created massive confusion and distrust of the overarching system. From alcohol bans, which proved to have no impact on the fight against Covid, to more absurd policy which included restrictions on individuals protesting. Despite the fact that the pandemic was an unprecedented time, accountability is required.
The government can no longer continue to drag on the state of disaster without justification, nor may it continue to be used as a scapegoat for irrational policymaking that makes no material impact on the fight against Covid-19.
Budeli is a legal associate at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the foundation