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CALS response to the current state of unrest

- Lee-Anne Bruce

CALS expresses deep concern over the current unrest and calls for a response which includes immediate social relief and long-term change to address inequality

The staff at CALS would firstly like to express our deep distress and join all those mourning the loss of lives and livelihoods during the last week. We recognise that this is an extremely complex situation with multiple historicial and contemporary causes and one that calls us to hold a number of competing thoughts together as we try to understand and respond to what is happening in our country.

A great many of the people who have been involved in recent unrest appear to have acted out of legitimate desperation and frustration born from widespread impoverishment and inequality that has only been exacerbated during the current pandemic and lockdown. Indeed, without such high rates of unemployment, food insecurity and lack of social relief that we are all so painfully aware of, this unrest likely could not have gathered such momentum. What is clear is that – as always – it is marginalised communities and especially those living and working in poverty who are bearing the brunt of the consequences.

What may have started as a protest against the arrest and incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma has morphed into something much larger. The unrest that has been taking place recently seems to be composed of many different elements. Some individuals may seek to strategically destabilise our society and undermine the rule of law. Some may see this as an opportunity to engage in criminality and self-enrichment. With this in mind, we state below a set of principles that should guide the response to the unrest.

We condemn any attempt to extort or undermine the independence of the judiciary. Our courts are central to the administration of justice and our judges must be free to apply the law impartially without fear, favour or prejudice. We cannot allow violence or threats to be used to attack individual judges or to pressure the judiciary as a whole. This would do nothing but weaken the institutions of hard-won constitutional democracy. We further condemn any incitement to violence and attempts to undercut the rule of law and insist instigators be held to account.

It is essential that government works to address not only the immediate violence, but the root causes of unrest and distress. We note that the South African National Defence Force has been mobilised to join police forces. We call on the state to fulfil its obligations to prevent violence and at the same time show restraint and use the minimum amount of force required to effectively end disorder. There should be no need for the vigilante justice we have observed that has already led to further violence, racism and xenophobia.

At the same time, it is crucial to put in place both short-term and long-term measures to reduce the poverty and inequality that have contributed to unrest. We reiterate the call to at a minimum reinstate and increase the special COVID-19 social relief of distress and caregivers grants. We also support the introduction of universal basic income support and the review of austerity measures that have inhumanely cut spending to essentials like social security, education and health care at a time of disaster. While we know that mechanisms like social grants play an important role in alleviating impoverishment and food insecurity, we acknowledge that they alone cannot hope to dismantle the widespread inequality in our country and we need a plan in place to redistribute our resources to create a more equal society.

We strongly oppose the declaration of a state of emergency in the face of current unrest. This would entail further limiting fundamental human rights and have potentially disastrous ramifications once again for people living in poverty. The scale of military and police brutality experienced under lockdown alert level five, when Collins Khoza and many others were killed, may give some idea of these consequences. While states of emergency have a place, such as during times of war, they are not an appropriate measure to be taken when state departments responsible for security and intelligence have failed in their duties.

There is understandable outrage over the violence, destruction and theft that have been taking place recently in areas of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal. We must not lose sight of the wholesale looting of state resources that has occurred through state capture. Corruption has severely damaged our state institutions and robbed us all on a much larger scale than we have seen over the last week – yet it has resulted in less outrage and far fewer arrests. We continue to support the work of the State Capture Commission and all those, including the media and civil society, who have worked tirelessly to uncover and address corruption.

CALS would like to offer whatever assistance we can at this time. We stand firmly against the criminalisation of impoverished people and extreme use of force by the police and the military. We pledge to engage with the National Prosecuting Authority on their stance of opposing bail for all arrested during the unrest, especially for accused women and children. We will follow up on complaints relating to police and military brutality, including the searching of people’s homes without warrants. We would also follow up on complaints related to vigilantism and racial discrimination and brutality.

Above all, we will continue to advocate not only for short-term social relief but more long-term change in order to address the poverty and inequality at the heart of much despair, discontent and unrest.

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