The court made a number of declarations of principle that must continue to operate even during the state of disaster caused by the lockdown and other steps taken by the government to curb the spread of COVID-19. It also issued several orders about what the security forces and their leaders, including the Ministers of Police and of Defence, must do in relation to the lockdown and the behaviour of the security forces during this time. Further, the court gave strict deadlines for complying with these orders.
In a major victory for human rights, the family of Collins Khosa and their neighbours have won a court application for orders against the security forces and their bosses. And they will no doubt be awarded significant damages when that part of the litigation is eventually heard. But they are not the only winners: everyone in South Africa has won because of this restatement by the courts that the government and the security forces will be held to account for how they behave – even during restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 – and that their behaviour will be measured against the standards of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Almost every country in the world is experiencing a narrowing of peoples’ rights and freedoms because of government restrictions imposed in the name of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. But will these governments willingly give up their new powers as the contagion eases? And if not, where should the people of a state look for help, if their own courts uphold these infringements of fundamental rights? In Africa, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights would be the court to adjudicate serious rights issues like these. But the question is whether, come the end of the pandemic, the court will be in a position to help. Very few of the 55 members of the African Union have fully signed up to the court in the sense of allowing individuals and NGOs to bring cases of human rights violations for adjudication by that forum. And those numbers have dropped in the past few months, weakening the court further. The case of Malawi human rights activist Charles Kajoloweka should, however, persuade people of the need to protect the African Court from any further withdrawals – and of the need to lobby for more countries to submit to its jurisdiction.
Like it or not, the coronavirus is forcing lawyers – judges, magistrates, prosecutors, advocate and attorneys – to play catch up with technology. Many courts are now operating through the lockdown or other social distancing restrictions via electronic hearings, and judges have to be up to speed. A number of recent cases show the courts wrestling with the question of how much extra time should be allowed to parties for preparation when the case is to be heard electronically. And under what circumstances should a court agree to postpone a matter until it is possible that lockdown will be lifted, so that the case may be heard as in the past? If ever there was a case that illustrated the problems involved, it is this one, a multi billion dollar, multi-applicant, multi-jurisdictional legal puzzle, all the more complex because its crucial initial phase must be dealt with online.
Kenya’s law society has launched a court application challenging the validity of the country’s Covid-19 restrictions because they have not been approved by parliament. The law society also claims they are invalid because they discriminate against the poor, in that they make wearing masks compulsory while those living in poverty will not be able to afford them. Further, the society argues that the regulations go further than the laws from which they derive their power, will allow. While this application makes its way to a court hearing, an earlier application by the society, also related to contentious Covid-19 restrictions, has been finalised by the high court.