Covid-19 Roundup | Courts and crime

As South Africa braces itself for winter and lockdown at level three, courts see an influx of urgent applications, school return dates are fiercely debated and police brutality remains under scrutiny.

Undocumented children

The South African government’s Covid-19 lockdown has destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of families in the country. The state has been unable to meet the needs of all those suffering and in the process has excluded migrants, asylum seekers and undocumented people from government food relief programmes. 

In light of Child Protection Week in South Africa, which runs from 31 May to 7 June this year, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa and the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town has warned about the risks to vulnerable children as the government takes a “citizens first approach”. 

Related article:

“As organisations that work with vulnerable children, we call on the South African government to note that the pandemic will gravely impact the most vulnerable children in our society,” the organisations said. “Vulnerable children are ‘invisible’ and at risk of being left behind.” 

The organisations also called on the government to do away with its “citizens first approach” by making healthcare, food, schooling and other services available to children regardless of their documentation status. They requested additional resources for social and social auxiliary workers, and asked that the government enable better access to child birth registration regardless of the documentation status of the parents and ensure that children facing harm are moved to places of safety. 

Housing and policing

At present, the courts can order evictions again as long as they are only executed once level three of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown ends. This is according to the regulations that the government may be forced to revisit in light of a high court ruling this week on the constitutionality of its lockdown.

Related article:

Calling for a moratorium on evictions for the remainder of the national state of disaster, 41 organisations stressed that housing is crucial to public health.

“The home continues to be the primary defence against the spread of Covid-19,” they said. “The possibility of evictions, displacement and destruction of one’s home is a potential death sentence.”

The police killed at least 32 people between 26 March and 5 May. Ten of the killings were during operations related to Covid-19. Ongoing investigations by Viewfinder, a journalism project that investigates abuses of power, have shown that state violence under lockdown is nothing new, with the police killing a person in South Africa every day, on average. The militarisation of South African policing has roots that go as far back as paramilitary policing entities that, alongside soldiers, gunned down opponents of colonial governments.

Court contamination

Judge President of the Gauteng Division of the High Court Dustan Mlambo closed the Johannesburg high court to staff and members of the public following “a Covid-19-related incident”.

The courthouse was to remain closed throughout the week and the weekend, to be decontaminated. The news of the closure happens at a time when the courts are currently dealing with matters deemed urgent because of the pandemic.

This has had a huge impact on the administration of justice. Matters that were scheduled for hearing during this time have had to be postponed to later dates. Not only has this affected ordinary people who want to see their matters finalised but also the legal profession, which has taken a knock with many law firms retrenching.

Eastern Cape judgments

Eastern Cape member of the executive council for transport Weziwe Tikana-Gxothiwe has lost a defamation lawsuit she lodged against United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa. Judge Gerald Bloem of the Makhanda high court also awarded costs against Tikana-Gxothiwe.

In April, Holomisa tweeted “#ComradesInCorruption are at it again. Sakhisizwe Civil Society Structures Forum gravely concerned about the EC provincial executive’s decision to quarantine 18 suspected Covid-19 patients in #Mioca Lodge, #Cala. This lodge is owned by MEC Weziwe Tikana-Gxotiwe. Makagxothwe [she must be fired]!”

Tikana-Gxothiwe said her daughter owned the lodge, not her but Bloem said in the absence of any explanation as to where her then 21 year old daughter would have got the capital to register, set up and run Mioca lodge in 2015, Tikana-Gxothiwe was “in all probability the owner thereof”.

Bloem said Holomisa’s tweet had not impugned Tikana-Gxothiwe’s name because “as a politician, the applicant should realise that she should not be treated as an ordinary member of society. She should expect robust, even exaggerated comments to be made about her conduct.”

Related article:

In Makhanda, 10 residents who took the municipality to court over continuous sewage spills won a court order compelling the municipality to fix all leaking sewerage pipes within 15 days. The residents had been particularly concerned about having to live in sewage during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The municipality has also been ordered to submit a report to the court within 30 days, setting out all the active sewage spills in Makhanda, together with a budget and a plan to fix the spills. The spills must then be taken care of within 60 days after the report is filed,” said Thabo Ramphobole from the Legal Resources Centre, which represented the group of residents.

KwaZulu-Natal’s missing PPE

KwaZulu-Natal member of the executive council for education Kwazi Mshengu has ordered the provincial head of department to investigate the disappearance of a large quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE) that went missing in the uMlazi, Pinetown and Zululand districts.

Mshengu said that the disappearance of this PPE makes preparations for reopening schools an elusive goal. “The replacement of these PPEs will cost the department millions of rands, … money … the department does not have.”

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education said it had received “with shock the reports of the disappearance of the large quantities of PPE … the equipment disappeared en route to the circuit office and schools”.

Department spokesperson Kwazi Mthethwa said a verification report revealed that three districts indicated they had not received their allocation of PPE. But the service provider alleges that he has delivered it and has a signature as proof, said Mthethwa. “No truck was hijacked, it was just an issue of PPEs being delivered … In government, we cannot just accuse, we must investigate,” he added.

Related article:

It was revealed in a portfolio committee meeting that the department has spent more than R400 million procuring PPE for returning grade 7 and 12 pupils. On Tuesday 2 June, 4 400 of 6 000 schools in the province were not ready to reopen on Monday 8 June, but Mthethwa said this figure was changing and that the department would have a clearer picture by the end of the weekend.

Mthethwa echoed Mshengu in saying that it would cost the department millions of rands it did not have to replace the missing PPE in the three districts.

The provincial opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) called for police involvement, alleging that purchases of the disappeared PPE were made at maximum and exorbitantly inflated prices. In one instance, spray bottles were marked up 400%. In another, the department purchased hand sanitiser for R183 each when the average maximum price is R65, claimed the IFP.

Mthethwa has been reported as saying that the department complied with guidelines and opened the bidding to vetted service providers.

School saga

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga apologised for postponing the reopening of schools on 1 June.

“Due to last-minute changes to plans to start the teaching and learning for grade 7s and 12s in public school, I was forced into several consultations with many key stakeholders with a direct interest in basic education,” she said.

Motshekga said various provinces were at different levels of readiness and that “absolute compliance with all health, safety and social distancing protocols pronounced by the Department of Health” was important.

Schools are now scheduled to resume on 8 June.

Springs hospital protest 

The National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (Nupsaw) is calling for a shutdown of Far East Rand Hospital in Springs, east of Johannesburg, which it says has five cases of Covid-19. The union claims the hospital does not have effective preventive measures in place to safeguard members of staff against infection.

On 3 June, Nupsaw members protested outside the hospital. But the police quickly shut it down. Spokesperson Kagiso Makoe said the police would not allow the union to meet with hospital management. 

The union has since called on the health department as well as the Department of Employment and Labour to intervene on its behalf and shut down the hospital.

Related article:

Among other demands, Nupsaw wants the hospital to provide proof of the disinfection that Far East Rand Hospital claims to have done, for workers to be tested daily and for workers who were in close contact with colleagues who tested positive to be allowed to self-quarantine with their families.

Makoe said that if the two departments had failed to intervene by the end of the week, Nupsaw would resort to other options. “We have no choice but to ask the members to come out in numbers and picket against the hospital, to have it totally shut down,” she said.

Update, 5 June 2020: TimesLIVE reported that the PPE “mysteriously reappeared”.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.