Opinionista John Steenhuisen 31 March 2020

Security forces are waging war on our constitutional democracy

Giving relatively free rein to the security forces under the cloak of the Covid-19 lockdown is dangerous and a threat to democracy.

The past couple of days have witnessed abuses perpetrated by the security forces against civilians at a scale last seen in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. Only a few days into the lockdown to combat the coronavirus, far too many members of the police, military and other law enforcement agencies have seized upon the lack of proper oversight over their actions to unleash a wave of terror in communities throughout our country.

Mere hours after the lockdown came into effect on 27 March, videos started circulating on social media showing heavily armed soldiers and police frogmarching and forcing civilians to do push-ups. This quickly escalated into security forces beating up and assaulting people in the street.

Next, video recordings showed police pointing guns at people even while they were inside their own yards. And, tragically but predictably, the abuses escalated to the point where members of the Ekurhuleni Metro Police on Sunday allegedly shot and killed a 41-year old man inside his own property in Vosloorus, also injuring four children.

The abuses follow the appearance of President Cyril Ramaphosa in a military outfit the night before the lockdown began. During his speech to the security forces, he told soldiers that:

“There are those who will want to take chances. Nudge them in the right direction. Tell them they are challenging the state, they are challenging the president.”

To glorify military authority and encourage security forces to act against civilians in his name was dangerous and extremely irresponsible behaviour by the head of state. President Ramaphosa would have known full well that his comments came at a time when Parliament, as well as provincial legislatures and municipal councils across the country, have effectively been suspended in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The president thus issued his orders to the military and police while constitutional democracy itself was effectively suspended.

The result was to give free rein to the SANDF, SAPS and other law enforcement agencies. It is no secret that our security forces have been massively underfunded for decades. It is also no secret that many members of the army and police are poorly trained and routinely abuse members of the public even under ordinary circumstances. That is why, in the past few years, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) has received over 42,000 criminal complaints against the police, including allegations of rape, assault, torture, killings and shootings.

It is of vital national security importance for President Ramaphosa to immediately rein in the military and police. Security forces have already abused hundreds and allegedly murdered at least one person just four days into the lockdown, and this situation could spiral out of control before the end of the 21-day period.

But urgently addressing this situation should not be up to the president alone. South Africa must not allow the government to suspend democracy itself under the fig leaf of battling the coronavirus. We are not a dictatorship, and there is no reason why Parliament should be prevented from exercising proper oversight over the security forces.

That is why I reiterate my call to Speaker Thandi Modise for the establishment of an ad hoc committee of the National Assembly to exercise oversight over the executive and ensure the protection of civil liberties during the lockdown. This committee could easily meet via online platforms or video-conferencing facilities to ensure physical distancing, while still enabling Members of Parliament to fulfil our constitutional responsibility to hold the executive to account and protect the people of South Africa from government abuses.

To ensure that the people are protected from the state, the DA will also establish our own dedicated system to enable South Africans to report abuses over WhatsApp and email. The DA’s shadow cabinet will then personally escalate complaints to IPID, the military ombud and other appropriate agencies for urgent intervention.

If President Ramaphosa does not act immediately to end these abuses, he risks creating a new crisis entirely of his own making. There is a very real danger that ongoing and escalating abuses by security forces could lead to a complete breakdown in public order, breaking the lockdown and unleashing a wave of violence, alongside the deadly coronavirus, on the people of South Africa. DM

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