Covid-19: United Nations express human rights concerns as SA moves into level 4 of lockdown


By Stefan Kirsten

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 4 of VARSITY News.


In the five-week lockdown period in South Africa, thousands of people in contravention of stringent lockdown measures have been arrested by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). This, together with reports of violence and power abuse by the SANDF and SAPS, has led the United Nations (UN) to express their concern over human rights abuses in not only South Africa, but in other countries such as China, India, Hungary and Turkey. On the 23rd of April, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, released a statement urging governments that during the Covid-19 crisis, “people-and their rights-must be front and centre.”


Unfortunately for some, this statement has come too late. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate of South Africa (IPID) is currently investigating multiple complaints against law enforcement officials. One such case is the alleged brutal murder of Collins Khosa at the hands of SANDF soldiers. According to an affidavit completed by Khosa’s partner, Nomsa Montsha, Khosa was humiliated, choked and beaten to into a critical condition of which he died hours later. In another case of questionable law enforcement ethic, 19 worshippers were arrested in the raid of a mosque in Mbuzini, Mpumalanga. In a video of the incident, one SAPS officer can be heard making blasphemous remarks. Police Minister Bheki Cele later apologised for the incident.


Ironically the SANDF was meant to be deployed in a manner that supported the SAPS, yet the SANDF appears to be drawing most of the criticism. The very deployment of an additional 73 180 members of the SANDF has also been called into question due to bypassing of a protocol by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The constitution requires that in matters related to defence, a presidential letter must first be addressed to the speakers of parliament who will then refer the matter to the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD). Ramaphosa’s letter was, in breach of protocol, directly addressed to the chairman of the JSCD, Cyril Xaba. In a radio interview with 702, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Lechesa Tsenoli, confirmed the breach of protocol by saying, “we [the speakers] have not received any such letter”.


What has been described by UN Human Rights Office official, Georgette Gagnon as a “toxic lockdown culture” has been dismissively addressed by the SAPD and SANDF. Cele made a statement saying, “we [the SAPD] have no issues arresting people if we need to, so don’t give us a reason to.” Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam, a senior SANDF officer, told MPs that they were not “his clients” and that he only answered to the commander-in-chief. Yam also replied to questions relating to misconduct of certain soldiers that soldiers are “hardened” and have “seen things”.


Although the measures implemented to stop the spread of Covid-19 were all with good intentions, the aggressive attitude and seemingly violent enforcing at the hands of the SAPS and SANDF have created a human rights controversy amidst a dangerous health crisis.


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