Amnesty International slams SA for violating citizens’ rights under lockdown

Government draws the ire of global watchdog for increase in police brutality, response to soaring violence against women and closure of school feeding schemes

27 April 2021 - 13:51
A report by Amnesty International has raised serious concerns over a rise in police brutality in SA during the enforcement of the country's national lockdown regulations. In this image an officer stands over the body of Mthokozisi Ntumba, who was shot dead during student protests in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, earlier this year.
A report by Amnesty International has raised serious concerns over a rise in police brutality in SA during the enforcement of the country's national lockdown regulations. In this image an officer stands over the body of Mthokozisi Ntumba, who was shot dead during student protests in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, earlier this year.
Image: Alon Skuy/ Sunday Times

South Africa’s government has come under sharp criticism on Freedom Day from international human rights organisation Amnesty International (AI) for the violation of its citizens’ rights under the Covid-19 lockdown.

In its 2020/2021 annual report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, the government was rebuked for, among other things, the:

  • use of excessive force by police and the military in enforcing lockdown regulations;
  • exclusion of refugees and asylum-seekers from Covid-19 relief programmes;
  • failure to properly protect health workers with the provision of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • misappropriation of Covid-19 relief funds;
  • cancellation of the country’s school feeding scheme which supported nine million children; and
  • inadequate assistance to victims following an explosion of sexual violence against women and children.

The report looked at how countries across the world ensured the protection of human rights while governments tried to contain and deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amnesty International’s SA executive director Shenilla Mohamed.
Amnesty International’s SA executive director Shenilla Mohamed.
Image: Amnesty International

AI’s SA executive director Shenilla Mohamed said: “The use of Covid-19 as an excuse to crackdown on human rights is illustrated by police brutality and loss of livelihoods and other violations of human rights. This makes it difficult to celebrate almost three decades of freedom."

“It is now more than ever that we need the government to put the people first and ensure everyone is afforded their basic human rights.

“It is clear that in the past 27 years while there has been some progress in changing poor people’s living conditions, the major problem has been tackling service delivery and inequality. People will never experience true freedom until and unless they are able to have dignified and safe lives where their human rights are respected, protected, promoted and fulfilled.”

The report highlights a significant increase in brutality cases by security personnel enforcing the national lockdown regulations.

The authors said the use by security forces of excessive and lethal force to enforce Covid-19 regulations “was common and increased”.

“In many instances, such force led to deaths and injuries. The April 10 2020 death of Collins Khosa, after he was brutally beaten by military and police officers in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township while enforcing a national lockdown, reflects a longstanding concern about the security forces’ use of excessive force. The military ombudsman found that military officers implicated in the killing had acted improperly.”

Other deaths highlighted by the report included that of Elma Robyn Montsumi, a 39-year-old sex worker, “who died in suspicious circumstances in custody in Mowbray police station in Cape Town, four days after being arrested on April 9 2020 on suspicion of possessing drugs.

“While the Independent Investigative Directorate (IPID) is investigating no arrests have been made to date.”

Murdered Collins Khosa's wife Nomsa Montsha and his children Wisani and Gift paying their last respect before his grave in Mawa village outside Tzaneen in April last year.
Murdered Collins Khosa's wife Nomsa Montsha and his children Wisani and Gift paying their last respect before his grave in Mawa village outside Tzaneen in April last year.
Image: Peter Ramothwala

The authors said between March 25 and May 5 last year, the IPID received 828 complaints of police misconduct which included 589 assaults, 32 deaths as a result of police action, 16 deaths in police custody, 25 reports of torture in custody and eight alleged rapes by police officers.

“On April 7 2020, police officers fired rubber bullets at homeless people living in a camp at the Strandfontein sports grounds in Cape Town when they protested against their poor living conditions, including lack of food.”

Inadequate PPE, food relief after loss of income

The document also states that across Africa, governments failed to adequately protect health workers from exposure to Covid-19.

“Workers operated in insanitary and unsafe environments due to shortages of PPE and sanitisers. In SA, by early August, at least 240 health workers had died after contracting Covid-19.”

The report highlighted how government’s Covid-19 social relief programmes had failed refugees and asylum-seekers during the first half of 2020.

“Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were unable – like citizens – to work in the informal economy which had previously sustained them. Only spaza shops owned by nationals were allowed to operate during the period when lockdown was most strictly enforced.”

“The asylum system failed those most in need. Governments must respect the right to seek asylum. They must guarantee access for all asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants to national health and social protection systems.”

Helping combat gender-based violence

AI’s report revealed how, under the lockdown curfews, sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) soured, “with a rate almost five times higher than the global average”.

The document stated rape and sexual assaults increased by 1.7% in the first quarter of the year, with more than 42,000 rapes reported in 2019-2020 and almost 144 sexual offences committed daily.

“Within the first week [of lockdown], police had received more than 2,300 complaints.

“Survivors often struggled to access justice, health care, legal aid and counseling services. Covid-19 also had a devastating effect on women’s reproductive health and rights as it disrupted access to maternal health care services.”

Civil society organisations fed schools pupils after the suspension of the National Schools Nutrition Programme under the Covid-19 lockdown. File image
Civil society organisations fed schools pupils after the suspension of the National Schools Nutrition Programme under the Covid-19 lockdown. File image
Image: Brenton Geach/GroundUp

Scholar support

The authors said educational inequality in SA was exacerbated by school closures and government’s pausing of its national school feeding programme which benefits more than nine million children.

“The authorities failed to use the school closures as an opportunity to improve school infrastructure. Children and staff  did not have adequate water, sanitation or PPE, and teaching and learning conditions prevented them from practising physical distancing.

“Government diverted funding which had been promised for the improvement of infrastructure in around 2,000 schools to Covid-19-related projects.”

While government was severely criticised for how the rights of women and children were protected and security force brutality, the authors said there were “some advances” in the protection from discrimination of women and girls. It also noted government’s actions against Covid-19 irregularities.

“In February, SA announced that it would draft a regional treaty on violence against women.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa established a ministerial team to investigate allegations of corruption connected to Covid-19-related procurements, including PPE and food aid, which was allegedly distributed by ANC-aligned politicians in a way that favoured certain communities.”

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