Today, the High Court in Cape Town will meet to hear the City of Cape Town’s case attempting to interdict the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and 8 of its accredited monitors over their work at the Strandfontein camp for the homeless during April and May 2020. The City of Cape Town instituted court proceedings against these entities on 5 May, accusing the SAHRC and its monitors of interfering, without legal standing, in oversight of the camp.
Many would ask, quite legitimately, if the interdict is an attempt to undermine the constitutional powers of the SAHRC and hide the City’s actions, including inhumane and repressive conditions at the camp, infections of occupants there and the disbandment of the camp and release of its occupants into the wider Cape Town community without resources and proper testing. This media statement by a number of organisations and movements attests to the fact that through this act the City is effectively putting human rights on trial. If the court finds in favour of the City of Cape Town, this would amount to a serious setback for democracy. Many ordinary people are concerned about this case as it will undermine the ability to monitor the rights of people being relocated from overcrowded conditions as the rate of infection climbs. Government has since the beginning of the lockdown indicated an intention to “de-densify” without giving clear and detailed plans for how people’s rights will be protected in the course of such relocation.
Human Rights on Trial
We, the organisations and movements listed below, offer our solidarity to all human rights monitors, accredited by the SAHRC, to undertake this important work during the Covid-19 National Lockdown in South Africa. The SAHRC and other Chapter 9 institutions are constitutionally mandated to provide oversight in relation to all state undertakings, to ensure that the rights and dignity of all those living in South Africa are observed, respected and protected. Their role is key to checking and balancing any over-extension of executive power in our democracy.
It is thus entirely within reason and correct that our human rights monitors present themselves at all sites and in all situations to monitor access to rights and dignity of any and all persons living in South Africa, especially those most socio-economically vulnerable. In terms of Section 11 of the SAHRC Act, “the Commission may establish one or more Committees which may exercise conferred and assigned powers and functions of the Commission.” On 14th April 2020, in accordance with this power, the SAHRC established a Committee representing more than 70 civil society organisations and more than 400 individuals nationally to execute the monitoring mandate for the Commission during the Covid-19 National Lockdown.
The monitors undertook such duties with regard to the relocation of homeless people to sheltering-in sites. Street-based people are our compatriots and our fellow community members, accorded full rights under the Constitution. Their relocation to adequate accommodation is in keeping with the rationale of sheltering-in-place as the first line of defence during a pandemic, as is water; access to sanitation, food and health care are also vital. Human rights monitors undertake monitoring of the relocation camp sites to ensure that these, and indeed all, basic rights are protected and advanced. To prevent the monitors from doing the work of the SAHRC amounts to putting human rights on trial.
We condemn any state entity for less than proper treatment of homeless people, including stripping fellow compatriots and people from other African countries of their rights and endangering them by placing them in ill-equipped camp environments primed for TB and Covid-19 transmission.
We consider it unacceptable that those responsible for sheltering-in-place of the homeless conceal that law enforcement officials test positive on-site, or that camp occupants test positive for Covid-19 off-site upon release. Non-disclosure of any such facts casts doubt on statistics publicly announced by government officials or their reassurances about safety from Covid-19. We note that occupants released in their hundreds from such sites without due and proper release considerations are not only placed at risk of infection themselves, but by fanning out across the city, town or rural areas, inevitably create fear about additional health crises. In Covid-19 hotspots, in a global health crisis, such handling of affairs amounts to dereliction of duty by the governmental office in question.
We condemn attacks on the SAHRC to prevent it from fulfilling its constitutional mandate, as well as callous attacks on human rights monitors by attempts, via the courts or otherwise, to prevent them from doing their work and reporting any rights violations.
We reject Apartheid in any and all guises. We reject the creation of militarised zones in our midst, such as these camps for the homeless, where lawyers are prevented from seeing their clients and occupants denied their basic human rights.
We do not condone the massacre of the social contract that we have adopted as a society since 1994, one built on the ultimate sacrifice of our forebears. We declare that our constitutional rights – our basic and most profound rights as a people – are put on trial when the SAHRC human rights monitors or any other oversight body is prevented from doing its work.
Nowhere in our constitution is it proclaimed that a state of disaster, or even a state of emergency, precludes those living in South Africa from accessing their basic rights and dignity.
Nowhere have the people of this country agreed to give up exercise and advancement of our rights and dignity.
We ask: What right has any governmental office to behave in such an unconstitutional, uncompassionate and unprofessional manner?
We remind that Covid-19 does not discriminate in who it infects or kills: We do, through the choices we make as a society about who gets appropriate protection and support. Government should act as a caretaker in this crisis, and if that responsibility is not held properly, we must assert our right to stand by our compatriots, including our human rights monitors, the SAHRC, in fact all who live here.
We ask now that all those living in South Africa stand firm and demand that our freedoms and rights be observed by all governmental and state institutions, even as we agree to cooperate in a spirit of care and responsibility to protect every person, group and community in this time of Covid-19 crisis.
1. People Against Apartheid and Fascism
3. Community Development Foundation Western Cape
4. Witzenberg Justice Coalition
5. Bonteheuwel Development Forum
6. One Voice of All Hawkers Association
7. Gender Equity Unit, University of the Western Cape
8. Oxfam South Africa
9. Shayisfuba Feminist Collective
10. The Rainbow Creative Strategies for Positive Change
11. Housing Assembly
13. Standup Foundation
14. Positive Muslims
15. Young Women of Vision of South Africa
16. Observatory Civic Association
17. Rehana Khan Parker and Associates Attorneys
18. Total Shutdown Movement
19. The Mbegu Platform
20. Workers World Media Platform
21. The Interim
22. Keep Left
23. Extinction Rebellion South Africa
24. Documentary Filmmakers Association
25. Independent Producers Organisation
26. Climate Justice Coalition
27. Equal Education
28. Marikana Youth Development Organisation
29. KZN Network on Violence against Women
30. Botshabelo Unemployed Movement
31. Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda
32. The Eastern Cape Water Caucus
33. Elliot Paralegal Advice Centre
34. Abanebhongo People With Disabilities, Nqamakwe
35. CARE Alicedale
36. Nofezile Special Care Centre
37. Ikhala Trust
38. Coping Centre
39. Bishop Lavis Action Community (BLAC)
40. Bonteheuwel Joint Peace Forum
41. Bonteheuwel Ratepayers and Tenants Association
42. Fight Inequality Alliance
43. Botshabelo Unemployed Movement
44. Makause Community Development Forum (MACODEFO)
45. Rent Strike South Africa
46. Thembelihle Men’s Forum (TMF)
47. Ithuba lethu Recycling
48. South African Spaza and Tuckshop Association
49. Apsara Primary Cooperative
50. South African Traders Alliance
51. SA Migrant Solidarity
52. United Public Safety Front
53. Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC)
54. New Unity Movement
55. Social Justice Coalition