EDITORIAL: One-sided ‘family meetings’ may pose a long-term danger to democracy
The rule by decree that the state of disaster regulations enable is fundamentally undemocratic
Fourteen months after SA recorded its first Covid-19 cases and went into lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s updates have thankfully become less dramatic events.
So it was with the Sunday media conference announcing what can be best described as a mild adjustment of restrictions. As expected, and reported by this paper last week, the night-time curfew was extended by an hour and the number of people permitted to gather was cut.
While there was limited speculation, no-one really expected the same heavy restrictions as seen ahead of the New Year. Sunday was more in keeping with his speech ahead of the Easter holiday, which was the last time Ramaphosa addressed the country on the pandemic response. A ban on alcohol sales seemed to be unlikely. Then, even restrictions on off-site sales were limited and lasted just for the long weekend.
It is clear that previous alcohol prohibitions were damaging, costing the whole supply chain from farmers to retailers such as Pick n Pay and Massmart billions of rand in lost sales. On top of the loss of jobs and the cultivation of an illegal industry, relations with the sector, including big investors AB InBev and Heineken, were damaged.
With the latter seemingly having decided to take a longer-term view and showing its confidence in SA’s prospects with what could be a R33bn bid for Distell, another ban or restrictions on retail sales would have been a slap in the face to the industry at a time when the government should be building bridges.
But while Ramaphosa’s addresses to the nation have become less dramatic and the restrictions less imposing, the fact of the matter remains that the rule by decree that the state of disaster regulations enable is fundamentally undemocratic.
That these are communicated via a “family meeting” — a warm and fuzzy sounding idea — makes them no less palatable. “Family meeting” implies a process of discussion and consultation, which of course is not the same as government diktats on Covid-19 restrictions. Not only do citizens not have a say, Ramaphosa doesn’t take questions from the media.
In the case of ministers who do take questions, it is often difficult to get your question across in a virtual setting and there is little opportunity to follow up or clarify what you are asking. It is more difficult for journalists to hold ministers to account in a virtual setting when they provide evasive answers.
While in any democracy, citizens will accept that during a time of national crisis, it is inevitable that liberties — in this case the right to move about and gather with whoever we want, among others — need to be restricted, but it is bizarre that something called the national coronavirus command council has become a normal and unquestioned part of our daily vocabulary.
Ideally these decisions should be taken by the people’s representatives in parliament, as is the case in a country such as the UK. Its coronavirus legislation passed in 2020 as it went into lockdown gives the government emergency powers but is understood to be temporary and has to be reviewed/renewed every six months. The last time legislators had a vote, they agreed to an extension by a big majority.
In SA we have to settle for co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma merely extending the national state of disaster through the Government Gazette every month, which in theory she can do indefinitely.
We suspect that if the population had more faith in the independence and competence of MPs to hold the executive to account, there would be more of an expectation that even in the midst of the health crisis its handling would be more in keeping with the country’s democratic principles.
Ramaphosa speaking about a “family meeting” may have a feel-good factor to it, but it’s patronising and longer term holds dangers for our democracy and ability to keep politicians accountable. It should be the government’s aim to normalise society and our rights as soon as possible.
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