Maverick Citizen


Human rights remain essential during the Covid-19 crisis

Human rights remain essential during the Covid-19 crisis
Many South Africans believe that the lockdown restrictions are not harsh enough, with some calling for more law enforcement. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Twenty-five years after the promulgation of the South African Constitution, widely hailed for entrenching human rights, a majority of South Africans do not question the harshness of the lockdown regulations, the invoking of the National Disaster Act by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the changes that these measures have visited on their human rights.

In a survey conducted by University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), based on a nationally representative spread of some 5,800 respondents, a telling majority – 68% – indicated a willingness to sacrifice “some human rights” if it helps to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Among the rights that have been limited under the lockdown are the rights to freedom of association, freedom of movement, the right to education and trade, and the right to privacy. Moreover, we are faced with a surveillance state and increased military presence on the streets.

Rights may be limited in terms of section 36 of our Constitution, when such limitation would be deemed reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society. And it appears that the “invisible enemy” we are “fighting” leaves us – the authorities and citizens – with few choices.   

It happened suddenly, and lives have been irrevocably changed. South Africa has been cited – sometimes criticised – as adopting some of the most severe restrictions globally, and Human Rights Watch has called for a more rights-centred approach. However, South Africa has also been acknowledged and praised as one of the top five countries in the battle against the ravages of Covid-19, along with South Korea, Germany, Singapore and New Zealand.

With the number of infections only expected to peak in September 2020, this poses the question as to how the pace at which decreasing lockdown levels will be announced, and how much relief the stimulus package will offer to small businesses on the brink of collapse, the growing ranks of the unemployed, and most alarmingly, an ever-increasing number of hungry and desperate South Africans.  

Notably, however, the Covid-19 democracy survey also reveals that the most support for the lockdown and sacrificing of human rights as it is (at Level 5) emanates from respondents over the age of 35. Wealthier people are far more likely to give unconditional support to the lockdown than those who are poor: 70% for those with a personal income between R20,001 and R40,000, but only 35% for those with a personal income of less than R1,000 a month. 

Young South Africans are far less likely to give unconditional support to the lockdown than those who are older. Only 35% of 18-24 year-olds backed this option, compared with 62% for those over 55. Those with lower levels of knowledge of the virus are less sure of whether or not they are willing to sacrifice human rights to stop the spread of the virus. These results may vary over time as the survey continues into Level 4.

An overwhelming 80% of people living in shacks or informal settlements, and those who are unemployed, are willing to sacrifice some human rights to contain the spread of the virus. This may be because they recognise that cramped circumstances demand such measures, but it may equally be that the dawn of human rights for all South Africans have, in terms of lived experiences, not made much of a difference to the lives of the poor. 

If promises enshrined in the Constitution have not led to better lives, the protection of rights could be seen to be less important than other more pressing issues, such as safety and security.

Another matter to consider is that rights are often understood only in their “traditional” sense – namely civil and political rights that protect individuals against abuse of power by the state. South Africa, however, also has justiciable socio-economic rights such as access to healthcare, housing, food and water that require progressive realisation by the state. Perhaps, if the survey had been more specific in its question and specified which rights people would be willing to sacrifice, the results could have told us more. This needs to be probed further, although some indication is provided in response to an open-ended question on what respondents consider to be the “worst thing” about the lockdown, that “we no longer have rights, our rights are shut down”.

Trust in leadership is important when it comes to compliance with decision-making, even that which could be seen as overly restrictive. Respondents placed a high level of trust in President Cyril Ramaphosa and his handling of the response to the pandemic – 73% of respondents indicated strong support for the president. 


The United Nations and local human rights watchdogs have warned against overly draconian measures that are restrictive of human rights. International law already recognises the grave impact of pandemics on social order and provides criteria to guide states in their emergency action.


Our analysis shows that it is one of the most influential factors informing willingness to sacrifice human rights to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and support lockdown extensions. Those who believe the president is doing a “very good job” in handling the pandemic were vastly more willing to sacrifice some human rights than those rating his performance as “very bad” (86% vs 22% willing), while 53 percentage point difference was evident in unconditional support for lockdown extensions based on the “very good” versus “very bad” performance evaluation (58% vs 5% unconditional support).

Yet many South Africans believe that the restrictions are not harsh enough, with some calling for more law enforcement:

“Mr President you must allow Police and the army to act decisively so to people not obeying the restrictions. We understand that we all have rights but if we want this LOCKDOWN to work, we need to forget about rights and allow the law to place its course. By so saying I’m not saying they must kill they must punish those who don’t obey the restrictions ahead,” stated by a young man from Kagiso in Gauteng. 

Another older man from Sebokeng in Gauteng reiterated: 

“I wish that this Rights thing can be put aside and address the degree at which this monster is gonna kill our people. South Africans are not listening and makes jokes with our lives. They leave kids to go on with life as usual forgetting that their child are gonna mix with ours at school and put them at high risk of Covid-19. Unique and forceful measures have to be implemented if not we’re not gonna win this battle.”

Of course, there is a danger here in leaders tending to authoritarianism, which is why civil society needs to keep a wakeful eye on this. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has issued a statement that it is monitoring the conduct of SAPS and SANDF. While less than 5% of survey respondents indicated incidents of altercations with law enforcement, trust remained relatively low at under 50% for both SAPS and SANDF. The effect will need to be monitored if the government implements a curfew between 8pm and 5am, as well as the mandatory use of a cloth face mask from 1 May 2020 to coincide with the introduction of Level 4 restrictions.  

The United Nations and local human rights watchdogs have warned against overly draconian measures that are restrictive of human rights. International law already recognises the grave impact of pandemics on social order and provides criteria to guide states in their emergency action. 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits curbs on the right to “liberty of movement” if restrictions are provided by law, deemed necessary to protect public health and consistent with other rights. Freedom of expression and association, and the rights to privacy and family life are also qualified in emergencies. But, as emphasised in the Siracusa Principles, any limitations must be of limited duration and subject to review, and must not discriminate unfairly.    

In a report by UNAids, “Rights in the time of Covid-19: Lessons from HIV for an effective, community-led response (UNAids 2020)”, the emphasis is placed on participation as a fundamental principle of human rights. All government policy and action must allow for the direct and meaningful participation of communities – particularly those affected and most vulnerable. 

Consequently, it is important to request feedback from communities and stakeholders. For instance, the announcement by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga that schools will open in May 2020, must seriously consider the views of people regarding the safety of learners, the responsibility that will rest on educators, and the lack of water and sanitation facilities at schools.

Heed must be taken of hardships and suffering, and the dignity of all, sentiments that are reflected in “messages to the president”, that we canvassed in the survey:

 “Thank you for being so proactive with respect to containing the spread of the virus and for consulting with experts, and listening. Please during this time do not forget that the dignity and rights of all in South Africa should remain a priority, no matter how serious this pandemic is,” a message from a lady in Kensington, Gauteng. DM/MC

This is one of a series of articles by researchers from the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change (CSC) and the Human Sciences Research Council’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division (DCES). Data comes from the online multilingual Covid-19 Democracy Survey. This can be undertaken, free of charge, by anybody in South Africa aged 18 or over with access to the internet. Go to: Results are weighted by race, age and education, making them broadly representative of the population. Phase 1 of the survey covers the days from 13-18 April, Phase 2 from 18-27 April, and Phase 3 from 27 April onwards. See HSRC summary report v1.pdf.The survey uses the #datafree Moya Messenger App on the #datafree biNu platform.

Narnia Bohler-Muller is divisional executive of the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research programme. HSRC and adjunct professor of law, University of Fort Hare. Yul Derek Davids is a Chief Research Specialist in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC. Benjamin Roberts is a Chief Research Specialist and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, HSRC. Martin Bekker is a researcher at the Centre for Social Change, UJ and an independent development consultant.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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