The authoritarianism in Covid-19 Regulations is just the latest manifestation of this growing trend in governance, marked by a culture of secrecy and extensive powers given to ministers. It is not surprising since many parliamentarians and executive members supported the passing of the notorious Protection of State Information bill in 2013.  From their conduct and utterances, some apparatchiks would serve with distinction in totalitarian regimes. The ‘new’ regime is looking suspiciously like the old, except that the deep divisions in society are based on class and not race. The National Security Council established by the President in February 2020 mirrors apartheid’s State Security Council and legislation increasing the powers of authoritarian traditional leaders would do the old regime proud.  The militaristic language of the lockdown media statement issued by the KZN premier on 19 April sounded like a declaration of martial law. In the early 2000s when rural communities beset by violence begged for army patrols, the then government refused to deploy soldiers for civilian policing. The Covid-19 lockdown provisions, some of which have no place in a truly democratic society, may well be a sign of things to come, unless more South Africans pay attention and find ways of stopping this disturbing trend in its tracks.

Excessive ministerial powers plus lack of transparency

It has become increasingly difficult to obtain information from government departments, and even PAIA applications may need the threat of court action to produce results. Simultaneously, corruption in government has grown exponentially. Looting in the once financially stable eThekwini Metro has necessitated its borrowing R1 billion rand, while opacity in governance has increased with the passing of a controversial ‘secrecy’ by-law limiting media and public participation in some meetings in 2017, with a further unsuccessful attempt by the mayor in August 2019 to limit media reporting.  Given this context, moves by ministers to appropriate more powers for themselves should be ringing alarm bells.  Take, for example, the planned take-over of some of the functions of schools’ governing bodies by the inept Department of Basic Education via the BELA (Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill), and the autocratic threats by the same minister to discipline teachers who refuse to teach a highly controversial sex education programme, rejected by many parents.

Of all the pending sloppy legislation, the NHI (National Health Insurance) bill demonstrates just how badly power has gone to politicians’ heads. The minister of this seriously dysfunctional department controls all its operations through appointments s/he makes, including to bodies which supposedly provide ‘independent’ oversight of health services. Its vague wording in places gives the minister carte blanche, including in decisions about the powers of national versus provincial competencies, the type of information users will be obliged to provide, and who s/he will give that information to (raising serious concerns about privacy) As if all this power concentrated in one pair of hands is not bad enough, s/he also appoints an Appeals Tribunal with High Court powers, without any recourse to Appeal decisions.

The powers granted to ministers in pending legislation relating to land and mining are very alarming, and their puerile attempts to justify it in terms of black empowerment are nauseatingly hypocritical. A prime example is the Constitution Eighteenth Amendment Draft bill allowing land expropriation without compensation. The land restitution process has been riddled with gross corruption, by-passing many deserving claimants in favour of well- connected opportunists, while the rights of poor rural residents have become increasingly threatened.

There has been a rush of legislation designed to facilitate mining and the empowerment of the elites without adequate time for consultation and comment. While public attention was diverted, the Minister published, on the first day of lockdown, amended Regulations to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act which ignored submissions and stripped communities of their land rights.   The Draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development bill was sneakily gazetted on 24 December 2019, and no copy posted on the parliamentary website, despite the deadline for comments being the third week of February.  This bill too represents an extremely serious threat to the rights of people living on land targeted by mining interests.  The apartheid government removed people from their land for its own ideological-cum-economic interests, the present government allows removals for mining activities which only benefit the new elites.

Traditional leaders are among those benefitting and it is in the recent Bantustan Bills that the same apartheid-type agenda is manifest. The Khoisan and Traditional Leaders Act, already signed into law, increases the power of these leaders to conclude business arrangements detrimental to those affected. The Traditional Courts Bill is currently before the NCOP. There is little difference between this legislation and that which it replaces, a section of the Black Administration Act of 1927; if anything, it gives these leaders even more power than the previous racist regimes deemed good for black people. Historically, these courts heard civil cases in terms of some illusionary customary law. Now, their powers are extended to hear certain criminal cases, the details of which are not spelled out in the legislation.  Like his/her predecessor the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs exercises full power about the nature of crimes included, and their punishment, which s/he will publish in government gazettes – which are inaccessible to those at the receiving end of ‘justice’ meted out by leaders (some of whom engage in criminal activities themselves with impunity). Like apartheid, these political concessions to traditional leaders incorrectly use the abused term ‘culture’ as justification –  but they are racial:  Not only are they are applied only to black people, but their application is not voluntary , as our supposedly democratic parliament has not allowed rural people to opt out of this feudal system.

How are they getting away with it?

While people accept the necessity for regulations relating to, e.g. social distancing, the lockdown was badly planned since it failed to factor in the reliance of a large sector of the population on informal sector and piecemeal work. Hunger has escalated, together with anger at corrupt councillors stealing food for the poor. It is not inconceivable that more poor people will die of poverty-related illnesses than of the Covid-19 virus, especially if they cannot face taking HIV and TB medication without food. The government has no right to decree what legal products people may purchase to consume in the privacy of their homes, or to stop them walking on their own. Nor can their measures be justified in terms of links between trauma and violence, since it is state organs who fail to police taverns and roads properly, as happens in other democracies where governments would not dare incur the wrath of citizens by imposing such ridiculous bans. In South Africa, many simply break the law, depriving the State of desperately-needed revenue – which further feeds avaricious organised crime networks, such as those politically well-connected operators described in Jacques Pauw’s book ‘The President’s Keepers’.

This lockdown has exposed the fallacy that South Africa is a real democracy, and the one lesson everyone should learn from it is that we will never build a democracy if we allow this increasingly blatant authoritarianism to continue. 

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