RAZINA MUNSHI: The police seem to like their lockdown power a little too much
Covid-19 regulations have given them an opportunity to push the boundaries of the legality, and sometimes the acceptability, of their actions
The lockdown in SA is as good as over. But does this mean citizens can relax in the embrace of a return to civil liberties?
Last week’s tragic killing of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies in the Gauteng suburb of Eldorado Park doesn’t inspire confidence.
Of course, excessive policing did not just arrive in SA when government declared a state of disaster in March 2020. In this country police killings are its own crisis altogether. Since 2012 the police have killed one person every day, on average.
The Marikana massacre – which took place when police fired at striking mineworkers, killing 34 of them – is the deadliest example of the decline in the state of public order policing in democratic SA.
However, the Covid-19 lockdown has given the police an opportunity to push the boundaries of the legality, and sometimes of the acceptability, of their actions.
Heavy-handed policing is one of the telltale signs of a state that is testing how far it can go to assert its control over the people it is supposed to serve. In the midst of a “once in a century” event, those invisible barriers were pushed all over the world.
This is not to deny that in circumstances such as the Covid-19 pandemic states can legitimately use extraordinary powers for good. But in many countries they have gone much further.
The battle-talk that was drawn upon by leaders galvanised in a “war on Covid” has compounded that. It is used to invoke a sense of duty, but also to justify greater state control.
Under regulations enforced when level 5 of the lockdown began on March 26, SA citizens were slapped with a curfew and prohibited from leaving their homes for anything other than essential trips. Drastic containment measures came with an initial deployment of nearly 3,000 soldiers, who were overwhelmingly sent to police poor communities.
The death of Collins Khosa after members of the defence force entered his yard and violently assaulted him has become a symbol of Covid police brutality. But there are many other incidents of brutality at the hands of the police that have gone uninvestigated.
This time police watchdog Ipid acted surprisingly quickly, arresting two policemen two days after Julies was killed. Yesterday it charged them with his murder and the possession of prohibited ammunition.
But this was not before a protest by Eldorado Park residents erupted. Their anger is deep. Police disrespect – and even outright hostility – towards neglected poorer communities on the fringes of SA society is not new.
The residents say they are a forgotten and bullied community that is preyed upon by heavy-handed police who do little to address rampant crime and drug abuse.
Communities such as Eldorado Park didn’t need to wait for a pandemic to confront the reality of over-policing. And this won’t be the last time they watch as innocent blood is spilt by the so-called protectors of our public safety.
Freedom vs liberty
For an analysis of Covid-19’s impact on civil liberties that goes beyond overpolicing, the SA Medical Journal has published an assessment of lockdowns in six Southern African countries titled “Comparative Strategic Approaches to Covid-19 in Africa: Balancing Public Interest with Civil Liberties”. It says: ’’While public health measures have been taken in the best interests of communities, in all six African countries described here the ethics of implementation have been poorly communicated, poorly understood, and in some cases compromised.’’
Public health measures have sometimes come with “serious violations of individual rights owing to abuse of power” and gaps in the implementation of well-intentioned policy, it says.
In a time of crisis such as Covid-19, it becomes important to assess the impact on civil liberties the world over regularly.
The Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, which “monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights”, says 121 countries have passed measures restricting the freedom of assembly.
Given the communicability of this virus, such measures are reasonable. But it says 42 countries have passed measures affecting freedom of expression and 41 have passed measures affecting privacy.
At the same time, the McGill Journal of Political Studies suggests that, in an effort to hold on to “dogmatic adherence to freedom”, other countries, such as the US, “have perhaps done far too little to restrict liberties for the sake of national security and public health”.
It cites Immanuel Kant’s suggestion that freedom is the very basis of the state: that “independence from being constrained by another’s choice” is the most fundamental political value.
“By this conception, the moral quandary of freedom vs liberty is certainly simplified. Yet, in these times, and in all times which threaten the fabric of a society or the safety of its citizens, it becomes clear that there can be no moral absolute.”
But it says restrictions for the sake of public health may not be so easily reversed when the pandemic ends. For instance, since 9/11 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, which increased that government’s ability to surveil its citizens, privacy rights have been under fire.
This same difficulty in regaining lost ground can be seen throughout history and around the world.
* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM
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