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Angry South Africans take to the courts to lift lockdown

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There is no question that the Covid-19 lockdown is tearing at the fabric of the country and ordinary people are starting to notice – and panic.

Narius Moloto, secretary-general of the National African Congress of Trade Unions (Nactu), told Accounting Weekly that the six-week lockdown was destroying the labour movement and trashing 25 years of democratic progress. Workers have lost their sources of income and are going hungry. Food parcels promised by government are not getting to where they are most needed. Social grants of less than R2,000 are having to be spread of families of 7-8 people.

This cannot, and won’t, last.

Nactu is taking legal advice to force the president to lift the lockdown and reopen the economy. Moloto says when the virus passes, tens of thousands will have lost their jobs and will find themselves with no source of income, and the labour movement will have been destroyed.

Nactu is not alone in having to resort to the courts. Dear South Africa has launched a fundraising campaign to bring an urgent case before the courts as part of a viral #unlockdown campaign that was launched a week ago.

Dear South Africa founder Rob Hutchinson says the many South Africans have not only lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown, but their basic human rights.

“Covid-19 is very real and is a major healthcare challenge. It’s not something to be taken lightly. We do however know much more now than we did even a few weeks ago about how best to approach this pandemic. It is incumbent on the government to take reasonable precautions, but the evidence now suggests it has adopted some of the most draconian measures in the world. If the government refuses to be reasonable then it should be challenged.”

The Free-trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) is planning to bring an urgent application before the courts this week challenging the ban on cigarette sales, which is reckoned to have cost the fiscus R1.5 billion in excise revenue while the lockdown has been in force. It is also claiming that a strict reading of the lockdown regulations do not prohibit cigarette sales, but retailers are afraid to defy the sweeping powers government has arrogated to itself.

Many other organisations and business leaders have also raised their voices in protest.

Mike Abel, founder and CE of the M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in Africa, sent a letter to the president and various ministers arguing that the lockdown had only one purpose: to keep people at home whilst the health services prepared for an onslaught of what this virus may bring in terms of illness and death.

“We did not go into a 3 + 2 week lockdown for it to be extended beyond that point, but just in a different guise. We went into it with the agreement of giving our health services time to prepare. No more. No less.

“And yet here we find ourselves, somehow being treated like naughty children and yourselves being our self-appointed parents. You have determined what we can and can’t buy, you have threatened taking us back to Level 5 if we don’t behave and you have overreached in terms of your controls.”

The National Peace Commission has likewise written to the president calling for the lockdown to be lifted on the grounds that it is procedurally irregular and unconstitutional.

It specifically requests the Minister of Health to provide reasons why the army was deployed for what was supposed to be a health crisis.

In a letter from its attorneys, the Commission says: “Our clients will seek the necessary relief in declaring  the present 2020 lockdown as unconstitutional and will seek the  necessary relief and will approach the Higher & Constitutional Court in declaring the present lockdown procedurally irregular in terms of the Disaster Management Act as well as also being all unconstitutional.”

All this suggests trust in the government’s judgment in imposing the lockdown – enthusiastically endorsed in the initial stages – is now starting to wear thin.

Bringing an end to the nightmare might now lie in the hands of the courts.