Do Covid-19 restrictions threaten democracy itself?
Some African governments have used the pandemic as a shield to mask curtailing freedoms and passing draconian legislation
The livelihoods and social fabrics of communities living in villages, growth points, districts, towns and cities dotted across Africa have been significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The economic impact caused by lockdowns, the reduction of trade in goods and services and the curtailment of travel and tourism have shrunk many economies and resulted in significant unemployment.
This threatens to up-end the many socioeconomic and political gains achieved during a period former SA president Thabo Mbeki termed the “African renaissance”. This time was characterised by the growth of pan-African institutions, setting in motion the implementation of continental programmes, such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Pan-African Parliament and, recently, the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement. Agenda 2063 of the AU and other initiatives are a guiding light towards the realisation of a united continent.
What is becoming clear, however, is that the pandemic has the potential to destabilise more than just lives and the economy.
The pandemic has created the perfect storm for the possible destabilisation of democratic norms that have taken many years to attain and entrench. The emergency powers enacted to combat the coronavirus have allowed governments to restrict movement, social media and public gatherings, and impose curfews, bringing back painful memories of minority government excesses that were unleashed on the populace in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Some would argue that we have never been more in danger of losing our freedoms than now.
Some governments have taken the opportunity to pass more draconian legislation that serves to limit the abilities of opposition parties to campaign and canvass votes as part of the normal democratic process. They have utilised the pandemic as a shield to mask curtailing freedoms enjoyed by the population.
Some believe the fears of contracting Covid-19 will further compound erosion of democracy by driving down participation in elections for some years to come. Some argue that this crisis also presents an opportunity for establishing mail-in voting and e-voting technologies.
We have many insecure governments that are afraid of the electorate and crave more restrictions, not fewer
The experiences and controversies of the last US elections demonstrate that we are still a long way from replacing in-person voting. Combined, these factors have the potential to decrease political expression by stifling smaller parties with less resources to get their messages to the electorate. Shrinking funding has also reduced the level of activity of civil society organisations that play a critical role in electoral awareness and elections monitoring.
It is no secret that conducting what can be viewed as “free and fair” elections has been challenging on the continent and conflicts linked to perceived electoral malpractice have been pandemics on their own. Many deaths, politically motivated arrests and incarcerations of opponents have been reported.
We have seen extraordinary contestations over election results in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali, to name but a few. The legitimacy of some governments remains in question and is challenged though the courts. The concomitant negative impacts on the socioeconomic conditions of Africans in countries with disputed elections has its genesis in this legitimacy crisis.
We have many insecure governments that are afraid of the electorate and crave more restrictions, not fewer. This fear spawns the erosion of institutions of democracy, the judiciary, policing, prosecutions and treasuries. This leads to poor governance, poverty, rampant corruption and erosion of the rule of law.
SA is headed for local government elections, now set for October 27 after the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa on April 21. Free and fair elections in SA are a regular exercise in democracy conducted since 1994. Universal suffrage is, in my view, a privilege but also a right — one attained through sacrifice, but highly underappreciated. The universal right to vote and the one person, one vote principle has been the clarion call of most pan-African liberation movements on the continent.
This call saw young men and women leave their homes and flee into exile to fight a system designed to deny Africans the right and freedom to cast their votes freely.
With all its challenges, regular elections have become enshrined as a cornerstone of most African countries’ constitutions with various systems created to manage the conduct of the elections. We have a plethora of organisations, including institutions of higher learning, NGOs and public international organisations, driving the standardisation of the rules around elections. The judiciary has found itself increasingly playing referee over the applications of these rules.
As a result of the lockdown restrictions and challenges in campaigning, some political parties and civil society organisations have called for the postponement of the upcoming local government elections in SA. They have raised doubts over the ability of the Electoral Commission of SA to conduct the elections and claim local government is about local issues, hence the inability to campaign freely due to Covid-19 restrictions would render the elections “not free and not fair”.
Proponents argue that the postponement of elections would be unconstitutional. They point to many other countries that have held elections under Covid-19 restrictions. Without postulating on the merits or demerits of these arguments, the outcome of any election in our tense political environment must be respected and seen as a legitimate expression of the will of the electorate.
It is important that we take the time to reflect how important it is to safeguard our democratic gains and protect our fundamental rights and institutions. This is so we honour the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy. We must ensure that freedom, like a tree, is nurtured so future generations may also enjoy its fruits.
• Dr Ngwenya is MD of the development advisory and impact division of Bigen Group in SA.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.