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The SAHRC weighs in on how to protect your human rights during the pandemic

The SAHRC weighs in on how to protect your human rights during the pandemic
Chairperson of the SAHRC, advocate Bongani Majola, said the limitation of some rights during the Covid-19 crisis was necessary to deal with the State of National Disaster effectively, but it was also about give and take between government and citizens.

The South African Human Rights Commission says the Covid-19 crisis has placed a spotlight on inequality, poverty and unemployment, all of which were existing issues. They hope this will spur all of us to do a lot more to ensure no one is left behind.

On Thursday 30 April, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) held a webinar discussion titled “Protecting your rights amid Covid-19”.

The discussion began with the chairperson of the SAHRC, Advocate Bongani Majola, being asked for his thoughts on the limiting of people’s rights during the lockdown. Majola said the limitation of some rights during this time was necessary to deal with the State of National Disaster effectively, but it was also about give and take between government and citizens. 

For example, he said denying freedom of association is a necessary pain in order to contain the spread of Covid-19. It is the nature of the situation, he said. Majola conceded that there is also an opportunity for state officials to violate people’s rights as with some reported incidents.

Regarding the possibility of constitutionality being used to challenge our current lockdown restrictions, Majola said our Constitution allowed people to go to court if they felt their constitutional rights were being violated and it was the responsibility of judges to make a final determination. 

Majola said that as a commission, they believe the lockdown requirements were constitutional as per the section on the limitation of rights in the Constitution. He said if they didn’t believe this, they would have challenged it accordingly. 

Regarding cigarettes, Majola said that while it may be a “painful situation for smokers”, the minister had explained how cigarettes impact on the respiratory system and how the disease would adversely affect those with a compromised system.

On the issue of refugees, Majola said the same help must be given to everyone and that we couldn’t pick and choose who gets services and who doesn’t. He said the SAHRC is concerned that access to food parcels is based on having South African IDs, especially knowing that some migrants and refugees do not have the necessary documentation. Everyone needs access to health, food and shelter, he said. He added that the commission was monitoring this issue of refugees and migrants, and where necessary, they would intervene with the relevant authorities.

On the right to food, Majola said: “Our concern is that the state machinery has not been able to reach all the areas where people need food and the state has an obligation to meet this need… We are grateful to NGOs trying to fill this gap, the good thing is that the command council is reviewing this on an ongoing basis.” 

He also raised the issue of government needing to focus its efforts on reaching more people in rural and far-flung areas during this time.

Majola said the Covid-19 crisis placed a spotlight on inequality, poverty and unemployment, all existing issues. He said that this would hopefully spur all of us to do a lot more to ensure no one is left behind. He said the levels of poverty are shocking, yet you still found people driving around in fancy cars, flaunting their wealth. He said on our list of priorities was the need to ensure we have housing, and that children didn’t continue to use pit latrines at schools. He said all of these were socio-economic rights, which we needed to be focusing more energy and resources on.

Asked about people’s right to attend religious gatherings, Majola said: “What becomes the question regarding freedom of religious association is: Is going to church the right? Or is it the right to believe in the god of their choosing?” He made the example that in Egypt, Christians are being denied the right to believe in a Christian god. Majola said what is being limited in South Africa during the lockdown is the ability of religious denominations to come together and not their right to believe in a god of their choice. Therefore the limitation, in effect, translated to freedom of association, not belief.

Majola clarified that legislation governing the SAHRC says there is an obligation to advise the state of any action beneficial for human rights. He said that the form of advice the commission gives to the state was through direct written correspondence to the state and sometimes through media statements.

Speaking about evictions, Majola said everyone has the right to housing and that the state had to fulfil that. He said the fact that people were occupying land showed that the government still has a lot of work to do in this regard. He said having built 4 million houses must not be a static number as it needed to be continuous. 

Majola said that the commission had taken steps regarding reported evictions and told municipalities that it is wrong to conduct evictions at this time. He added that people should also not use the opportunity to occupy land illegally and that as a nation we have rights and responsibilities.

Majola said the commission was aware of the high infection and death rates at places like mental institutions and correctional institutions, and they were monitoring the situation. He added that the nature of the lockdown limits physical visitation of such places and that they were trying to find innovative ways to work around this. 

One of the other concerns was the opening of schools when some schools have no access to water, yet learners need to wash their hands regularly while maintaining physical distance. Majola said: “I’d like to see a concrete plan that would mitigate these risks.” He said that there is also the issue of schools for learners with disabilities e.g. blind schools in which the primary form of navigation is touch and how that would be circumvented. 

Majola said it would be difficult to build a human rights culture in South Africa while some had rights, but others did not. He said there needed to be a review of resource allocation by government. “If we spent more money on housing, then we wouldn’t be forcing numbers of people into places like Strandfontein. If you want development, you can’t do so without focusing on human rights.” 

Majola also talked about the issue of municipal governments reportedly not being cooperative and that while there were pockets of provincial, and national government cooperation, it was inconsistent and all government levels needed to instil a culture of human rights.

Majola added that the majority of officials are doing an honest job and that it was just a few individuals who were damaging the name of the police or government. He did, however, emphasise that it was up to the authorities to address the bad apples. “There is a lack of supervision, government needs to ensure uniformity of response in order not to undo their good work.” DM/MC

During the discussion, the SAHRC ran a poll asking, “Do you Trust police/military to protect human rights during lockdown”. Below are the results:

Yes: 11%
No: 61%
Not sure: 27%

Gallery

"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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