Civil Liberties are Under Attack in South Africa

Take heed of the following wise words. Ignore them at your own peril:

“There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.” – Montesquieu, French philosopher

Civil liberties are being threatened, accompanied by thunderous applause. From suburbanites lacking moral fibre who report waste pickers trying to make a living, to members of the security forces enforcing laws and regulations that effectively ban the act of making a living, millions of people are losing their rights and freedoms.

The military has been unleashed on citizens in a time of peace. It is said that this is the largest ever deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), some 75,000 troops in total. The SANDF’s Chief of Joint Operations Lieutenant-General Rudzani Maphwanya is threatening to “react immediately” to people who “insult” the President, under the false guise of defending the Constitution. Perhaps he should familiarise himself with its contents, particularly section 16. It is terrifying that an official in the upper echelons of the most highly armed wing of the state is threatening citizens with violence if they dare insult a democratically elected leader.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]People are the economy. The economy is people going about their daily lives, making a living for themselves, and exchanging goods and services to fulfil their subjective needs.[/perfectpullquote]

SANDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam went as far as saying that they are not accountable to Parliament but only to the President. Perhaps he should join hands with Lieutenant-General Maphwanya and attend a reading session on the Constitution?

Alas, the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, before whom these threats of unconstitutional behaviour were made, did not chastise these two military leaders for their flagrant disregard of the checks and balances in our constitutional dispensation. Why?

Police Minister Bheki Cele is laying charges of crimen injuria against people for insulting him, and advocating for the ban on alcohol to be extended beyond the lockdown because of no other discernible reason except perhaps a yearning for the prohibition era after watching an episode of Boardwalk Empire. He is also threatening to illegally destroy infrastructure used in the sale of alcohol. Threats of illegal action by members of the security forces are unacceptable. Their job is to keep the peace, acting within the law, and to set an example to their fellow citizens.

Government has also taken it upon itself to police fake news, the implication being that they are the final arbiters when it comes to deciding what is and is not fact. This is a terrifying thought for anyone who recognises the value of freedom of expression and the important role it plays in a liberal democracy. It is impossible to overstate how dangerous it is to allow government to determine what may be said and what may not, in any context. Along with policing fake news, government has also issued regulations that serve to unjustifiably infringe on the right to privacy of citizens. The intentions of government may seem to be benevolent, but it would be a fatal mistake to judge policies by their intentions rather than their actual effects on civil liberties.

It is important to remember that there is no difference between the economy and human lives. It’s a false dichotomy to think otherwise. People are the economy. The economy is people going about their daily lives, making a living for themselves, and exchanging goods and services to fulfill their subjective needs. People prevented from being able to survive because they are prohibited from being productive is itself a health crisis.

Preventing mostly poor South Africans, who are sadly, disproportionately black (constituting indirect discrimination), from making a living for weeks, possibly months on end, is not a viable method of trying to put off the inevitable exponential spread of COVID-19. Flattening the curve should not be conflated with the completely futile attempt to permanently halt the spread.

Fear makes people unable to question the exercise of power by, never mind the fundamental nature of, the institution that is the state. The pandemic should not be ignored, and one cannot blame people for fearing for their health, but we are witnessing the development of a socio-political environment where freedom is sacrificed for the temporary illusion of long-term safety. More worryingly, people who point this out are ridiculed and ostracised.

An overreaching state, which was already posing a threat to civil liberties before the onset of the global pandemic, is a much bigger threat to individual liberty than COVID-19. The state has proven itself to be very deadly, worldwide, when given leeway by people who are too busy singing kumbaya in front of their television screens whenever Big Brother addresses them, without so much as an ounce of critical interrogation of the extent to which their lives are being controlled. We must never drop our guard. It is a moral imperative for the citizenry to hold the state and its officials to account, as well as to criticise wherever necessary, irrespective of the circumstances.

Jacques Jonker is an Economic and Legal Analyst at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.