Coronavirus Presents Opportunity for Future Societal Improvement in SA
The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to carve out a significantly improved post Coronavirus societal order in South Africa, according to the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) Mr Bongani Majola.
Presenting a keynote address during a public webinar hosted by UKZN’s Corporate Relations Division, Majola said the virus offered an opportunity in a time of crisis. ‘Indeed the virus is also undoubtedly one of the greatest tests and poses an existential threat to humankind.’
Titled: Human Rights in the Era of COVID-19, the webinar recalled the killing by apartheid police of 69 people during a peaceful demonstration against pass laws on 21 March, 1960 (Sharpeville Massacre) as well as celebrating all forms of human rights.
Other panellists included Dean and Head of UKZN’s School of Education Professor Thabo Msibi who facilitated the session and respondent Mrs Rosalind Chetty, a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences.
Said Majola: ‘The pandemic has wreaked havoc in economies all over the world. It has led to significant job losses and contributed to increasing social economic challenges, however, the pandemic is an opportunity too to carve out a post Coronavirus societal order which is more equally based, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.’
In his address, Majola raised a variety of questions including: Are human rights still relevant in the era of the pandemic?; Are human rights of any relevance in addressing the challenges brought by the pandemic?; Where should we place human rights in the response to the pandemic?; and What role should all level of society play in building back from the ravages that have either been exacerbated or caused by the pandemic?
In answer to his questions, he said human rights were still relevant during COVID-19.
‘The human rights approach or response to the crisis ensures that no-one is left behind and prevents the further marginalisation of those already in the fringes of society. A human rights-based approach ensures that people are put at the centre of all the recovery efforts.’
Majola underlined several challenges magnified by the pandemic, saying even thoughthe country needed to go into lockdown, it had taken a serious toll on human rights in the country.
Challenges included the lack of water and sanitation in schools, the rampant corruption during the tendering process for personal protection equipment; homeless citizens who were exposed to the pandemic; people being evicted during lockdown; care for undocumented foreign nationals who ‘fell between the cracks’, and the monitoring of the rights of those in old age homes, among many others.
Majola said it was important for the people of South Africa to put the emphasis on reflecting on the future of human rights in this country and not to be held in ‘prison to the past’.
He thanked UKZN for making a significant contribution towards raising awareness and building a culture of human rights in the country.
Responding to the address, Chetty echoed Majola’s sentiments that the pandemic magnified the existing inequalities in South Africa and affected people disproportionately. She said the poor were becoming poorer - latest statistics showed a 33% unemployment rate in South Africa with little relief in sight.
‘We know that the third wave is imminent, it is looming, and we have to think very carefully. The pandemic has accelerated or deepened inequality.’
Chetty also responded to the issue of access to education with the government having to suddenly close down educational institutions to contain the spread of the virus, forcing learners to migrate to remote modes of learning. ‘What was glaring was how the crisis illustrated to us the lack of access to education in an emergency context. So we found, even at the University, that this posed a huge problem - getting our students to become involved online was a big challenge because of the lack of technology and access to devices. In my personal experience, there was also no power at their homes in the villages.’
With the third wave looming, Chetty said: ‘Any changes that restrict our rights must be flexible if you want to protect public health and save lives. Changes need to complement or enhance our human rights which cannot be treated as an optional.’
Msibi facilitated a question and answer session with participants including some from countries such as Malawi, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.
Acting Executive Director of UKZN’s Corporate Relations Division Ms Normah Zondo thanked everyone for their participation. ‘It is important we remember painful chapters in our history to promote unity among South Africans and also to affirm our human rights culture. We have a long way to go in ensuring that the dark deeds of our past are never repeated. Even though human rights is such a painful discussion topic, I hope everyone enjoyed the constructive engagement.’
Words: Sithembile Shabangu