President Cyril Ramaphosa told members of the police and army before the lockdown began that citizens needed to be treated with dignity and respect. Picture: ROGER SEDRES/GALLO IMAGES
President Cyril Ramaphosa told members of the police and army before the lockdown began that citizens needed to be treated with dignity and respect. Picture: ROGER SEDRES/GALLO IMAGES

We’ve all seen them by now, cooped up as we are in our homes with only television and social media to distract us: mobile phone video clips of soldiers, ostensibily deployed to SA’s townships to support police in enforcing the coronavirus lockdown, abusing people’s basic human rights with apparent impunity.

Footage of soldiers and police officers beating people or forcing them at gunpoint to perform strenuous and humiliating exercises as “punishment” for leaving their homes, apparently in violation of the lockdown rules, has spread like wildfire on social media. And rather than being condemned by the authorities, as might be expected in a constitutional democracy, all too many people who should know better, especially given SA’s authoritarian past, have cheered the abusers on.

ANC MP and parliamentary whip Thabo Mmutle dug himself ever deeper into a hole after initially insisting that the Bill of Rights had been suspended during the state of disaster, by doubling down when he was corrected and praising the “good work” the soldiers were doing by “assisting our people to be disciplined in order to save their lives”.

“They are not supposed to be beating people but the light punishment like frog-jumps, that is not a violation. They are just assisting our people to be disciplined. Those are the measures that obviously soldiers are using for them to enforce the regulations. Those are normally used to ensure that there is discipline,” Mmutle told The Times.

To be fair, after announcing the lockdown last week President Cyril Ramaphosa specifically called on the security forces to implement it with “compassion and humility”.

“This is not a skop and donder moment. This is not a skiet and donder moment. This is a moment where we save lives,” he said in an address to officers who were about to be deployed. And defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula subsequently issued a statement calling on deployed soldiers to desist from using excessive force against civilians.

But this is not just about supposed democrats slipping all too easily into authoritarian mode. There is good reason for concern that supposed “emergency” measures that limit our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and may be justified as part of the bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, will not easily be reversed when the threat has subsided.

In addition to the restrictions on free movement that have been imposed in terms of the Disaster Management Act, government has published a number of regulations that seem to contradict existing legislation or court orders, or have the potential to infringe on basic rights such as freedom of expression and privacy. While few would object to those who cause panic by deliberately spreading fake news over the Covid-19 pandemic being punished, intention is not always clear and witch hunts have no place in a democratic society.

Similarly, while the intention behind the directions issued by the communications ministry authorising the use of location-based data, such as that generated by cellular phones, to assist with tracking the spread of Covid-19 is undoubtedly benign, they have rightly set off warning bells among human rights activists.

Location-based data is hugely sensitive and wide open to abuse if it falls into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, in the SA context those hands could well be the state intelligence operatives, who have proved themselves less than apolitical in the recent past.

There is a reason judicial orders are normally required to compel the cellular service providers to release such information to the authorities, and these safeguards cannot be simply abandoned in our eagerness to “flatten the curve”. It would be naive to assume that everybody is always acting in the public interest or to save lives. 

The Disaster Management Act does not trump the constitution — we dare not abrogate the responsibility of eternal vigilance in this time of coronavirus lest the suspension of basic rights becomes the norm. 

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